The Paris Peace Conference, also known as Versailles Peace Conference, was the meeting of the victorious Allied Powers following the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central Powers.
Involving diplomats from 32 countries and nationalities, the major or main decisions were the creation of the League of Nations, as well as the five peace treaties with the defeated states; the awarding of German and Ottoman overseas possessions as "mandates", chiefly to Britain and France; reparations imposed on Germany; and the drawing of new national boundaries (sometimes with plebiscites) to better reflect ethnic boundaries.
The main result was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, which in section 231 laid the guilt for the war on "the aggression of Germany and her allies". This provision proved humiliating for Germany and set the stage for the expensive reparations Germany was intended to pay (it paid only a small portion before reparations ended in 1931). The five major powers (France, British Empire, Italy, Japan and the United States) controlled the Conference. And the "Big Four" were the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau; the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Lloyd George; the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson; and the Prime Minister of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando. They met together informally 145 times and made all the major decisions, which in turn were ratified by the others.Rene Albrecht-Carrie, Diplomatic History of Europe Since the Congress of Vienna (1958) p. 363 The conference began on January 18, 1919, and with respect to its end date Professor Michael Neiberg has noted:
The five major powers (France, Britain, Italy, the U.S., and Japan) controlled the Conference. Amongst the "Big Five", in practice Japan only sent a former prime minister and played a small role; and the "Big Four" leaders dominated the conference.
Five major peace treaties were prepared at the Paris Peace Conference (with, in parentheses, the affected countries):
The major decisions were the establishment of the League of Nations; the five peace treaties with defeated enemies; the awarding of German and Ottoman overseas possessions as "mandates", chiefly to members of the British Empire and to France; reparations imposed on Germany, and the drawing of new national boundaries (sometimes with plebiscites) to better reflect the forces of nationalism. The main result was the Treaty of Versailles, with Germany, which in section 231 laid the guilt for the war on "the aggression of Germany and her allies". This provision proved humiliating for Germany and set the stage for very high reparations Germany was supposed to pay (it paid only a small portion before reparations ended in 1931).
As the conference's decisions were enacted unilaterally, and largely on the whims of the Big Four, for its duration Paris was effectively the center of a world government, which deliberated over and implemented the sweeping changes to the political geography of Europe. Most famously, the Treaty of Versailles itself weakened Reichswehr and placed full blame for the war and costly reparations on Germany's shoulders – the Revanchism in Germany is sometimes considered one of the causes of Nazi Party electoral successes and indirectly a cause of World War II. The League of Nations proved controversial in the United States as critics said it subverted the powers of Congress to declare war; the U.S. Senate did not ratify any of the peace treaties and the U.S. never joined the League – instead, the Harding administration of 1921-1923 concluded new treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Weimar Republic was not invited to attend the conference at Versailles. Representatives of White movement (but not Russian SSR) were present. Numerous other nations did send delegations in order to appeal for various unsuccessful additions to the treaties; parties lobbied for causes ranging from independence for the countries of the South Caucasus to Japan's unsuccessful demand for racial equality amongst the other Great Powers.
The British dominions wanted their reward for their sacrifice. Australia wanted New Guinea, New Zealand wanted Samoa, and South Africa wanted South West Africa (modern Namibia). Wilson wanted the League of Nations to administer all the German colonies until such time as they were ready for independence. Lloyd George realized he needed to support his dominions, and he proposed a compromise that there be three types of mandates. Mandates for the Turkish provinces were one category; they would be divided up between Britain and France.
The second category, comprising New Guinea, Samoa, and South West Africa, were located so close to responsible supervisors that the mandates could hardly be given to anyone except Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Finally, the African colonies would need the careful supervision as "Class B" mandates that could only be provided by experienced colonial powers Britain, France, and Belgium; Italy and Portugal received small bits of territory. Wilson and the others finally went along with the solution.Peter Ryland, Lloyd George (1975) p. 481 The dominions received "Class C Mandates"to the colonies they wanted. Japan obtained mandates over German possessions north of the equator.Paul Birdsall, Versailles Twenty Years After (1941) pp. 58–82Macmillan, Paris 1919, pp. 98–106
Wilson wanted no mandates for the United States; his top advisor Colonel House was deeply involved in awarding the others.Scot David Bruce, Woodrow Wilson's Colonial Emissary: Edward M. House and the Origins of the Mandate System, 1917–1919 (University of Nebraska Press, 2013) Wilson was especially offended by Australian demands. He and Hughes had some memorable clashes, with the most famous being:
The Racial Equality Proposal put forth by the Japanese did not directly conflict with any of these core British interests. However, as the conference progressed the full implications of the Racial Equality Proposal, regarding immigration to the British Dominions (with Australia taking particular exception), would become a major point of contention within the delegation.
Ultimately, Britain did not see the Racial Equality Proposal as being one of the fundamental aims of the conference. The delegation was therefore willing to sacrifice this proposal in order to placate the Australian delegation and thus help satisfy its overarching aim of preserving the unity of the British Empire.Shimazu (1998), pp. 14–15, 117.
Although Britain reluctantly consented to the attendance of separate Dominion delegations, the British did manage to rebuff attempts by the envoys of the newly proclaimed Irish Republic to put its case to the Conference for self-determination, diplomatic recognition and membership of the proposed League of Nations. The Irish envoys' final "Demand for Recognition" in a letter to Clemenceau, the Chairman, was not answered. Britain had planned to legislate for two Irish Home Rule states (without Dominion status), and did so in 1920. In 1919 Irish nationalists were unpopular with the Allies because of the Conscription Crisis of 1918.
David Lloyd George commented that he did "not do badly" at the peace conference, "considering I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon." This was a reference to the very idealistic views of Wilson on the one hand and the stark realism of Clemenceau, who was determined to see Germany punished.
Convinced that Canada had become a nation on the battlefields of Europe, its Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, demanded that it have a separate seat at the conference. This was initially opposed not only by Britain but also by the United States, which saw a dominion delegation as an extra British vote. Borden responded by pointing out that since Canada had lost nearly 60,000 men, a far larger proportion of its men compared to the 50,000 American losses, at least had the right to the representation of a "minor" power. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, eventually relented, and convinced the reluctant Americans to accept the presence of delegations from Canada, British Raj, Australia, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa. They also received their own seats in the League of Nations.
Canada, although it too had sacrificed nearly 60,000 men in the war, asked for neither reparations nor mandates.Margaret McMillan, "Canada and the Peace Settlements," in David Mackenzie, ed., Canada and the First World War (2005) pp. 379–408
The Australian delegation, led by the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, fought hard for its demands: reparations, the annexation of German New Guinea and rejection of the Japanese Racial Equality Proposal. Hughes said that he had no objection to the equality proposal provided it was stated in unambiguous terms that it did not confer any right to enter Australia. Hughes was concerned by the rise of Japan. Within months of the declaration of the War in 1914, Japan, Australia and New Zealand had seized all German possessions in the Far East and Pacific. Though Japan occupied German possessions with the blessings of the British, Hughes was alarmed by this policy.
Clemenceau also expressed skepticism and frustration with Wilson's Fourteen Points: "Mr. Wilson bores me with his fourteen points", complained Clemenceau. "Why, God Almighty has only ten!" Wilson won a few points by signing a mutual defense treaty with France, but back in Washington he did not present it to the Senate for ratification and it never took effect.
Another alternative French policy was to seek a rapprochement with Germany. In May 1919 the diplomat René Massigli was sent on several secret missions to Berlin. During his visits Massigli offered on behalf of his government to revise the territorial and economic clauses of the upcoming peace treaty. Massigli spoke of the desirability of "practical, verbal discussions" between French and German officials that would lead to a "collaboration Franco-allemande". Furthermore, Massagli told the Germans that the French thought of the "Anglo-Saxon powers", namely the United States and British Empire, to be the major threat to France in the post-war world. He argued that both France and Germany had a joint interest in opposing "Anglo-Saxon domination" of the world and warned that the "deepening of opposition" between the French and the Germans "would lead to the ruin of both countries, to the advantage of the Anglo-Saxon powers".Trachtenberg (1979), page 43.
The Germans rejected the French offers because they considered the French overtures to be a trap to trick them into accepting the Versailles treaty "as is" and because the German foreign minister, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau thought that the United States was more likely to reduce the severity of the peace terms than France. In the final event it proved to be Lloyd George who pushed for more favourable terms for Germany.
The Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando tried, therefore, to get full implementation of the Treaty of London, as agreed by France and Great Britain before the war. He had popular support, for the loss of 700,000 soldiers and a budget deficit of 12,000,000,000 Lire during the war made the Italian government and people feel entitled to all these territories and even more not mentioned in the Treaty of London, in particular the city of Fiume, which many Italians believed should be annexed to Italy because of the Italian population.Macmillan, ch 22
In the meetings of the "Big Four", in which Orlando's powers of diplomacy were inhibited by his lack of English, the others were only willing to offer Trentino to the Brenner, the Dalmatian port of Zara and some of the Dalmatian islands. All other territories were promised to other nations and the great powers were worried about Italy's imperial ambitions. Even though Italy did get most of its demands, Orlando was refused Fiume, most of Dalmatia and any colonial gain, so he left the conference in a rage.H. James Burgwyn, Legend of the Mutilated Victory: Italy, the Great War and the Paris Peace Conference, 1915–1919 (1993)
There was a general disappointment in Italy, which the nationalist and fascist parties used to build the idea that Italy was betrayed by the Allies and refused what was due (Mutilated victory). This led to the general rise of Italian fascism.
Wilson's diplomacy and his Fourteen Points had essentially established the conditions for the armistices that had brought an end to World War I. Wilson felt it was his duty and obligation to the people of the world to be a prominent figure at the peace negotiations. High hopes and expectations were placed on him to deliver what he had promised for the post-war era. In doing so, Wilson ultimately began to lead the foreign policy of the United States toward interventionism, a move strongly resisted in some domestic circles.
Once Wilson arrived, however, he found "rivalries, and conflicting claims previously submerged". US Dept of State; International Boundary Study, Jordan – Syria Boundary, No. 94 – 30 December 1969, p.10 He worked mostly trying to sway the direction that the French (Georges Clemenceau) and British (Lloyd George) delegations were taking towards Germany and its allies in Europe, as well as the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East. Wilson's attempts to gain acceptance of his Fourteen Points ultimately failed, after France and Britain refused to adopt some specific points and its core principles.
In Europe, several of his Fourteen Points conflicted with the other powers. The United States did not encourage or believe that the responsibility for the war that Article 231 placed on Germany was fair or warranted.MacMillan, Paris 1919 (2001), p. 6. It would not be until 1921 that the United States finally signed separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
In the Middle East, negotiations were complicated by competing aims, claims, and the new mandate system. The United States hoped to establish a more liberal and diplomatic world, as stated in the Fourteen Points, where democracy, sovereignty, liberty and self-determination would be respected. France and Britain, on the other hand, already controlled empires, wielded power over their subjects around the world and still aspired to be dominant colonial powers.
In light of the previously secret Sykes–Picot Agreement, and following the adoption of the mandate system on the Arab province of the former Ottoman lands, the conference heard statements from competing Zionist and Arab claimants. President Woodrow Wilson then recommended an international commission of inquiry to ascertain the wishes of the local inhabitants. The Commission idea, first accepted by Great Britain and France, was later rejected. Eventually it became the purely American King–Crane Commission, which toured all Syria and Palestine during the summer of 1919, taking statements and sampling opinion. Its report, presented to President Wilson, was kept secret from the public until The New York Times broke the story in December 1922. A pro-Zionist joint resolution on Palestine was passed by Congress in September 1922.
France and Britain tried to appease the American President by consenting to the establishment of his League of Nations. However, because isolationist sentiment was strong and some of the articles in the League's charter conflicted with the United States Constitution, the United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles nor joined the League of Nations,MacMillan (2001), p. 83. which President Wilson had helped create, to further peace through diplomacy rather than war and conditions which can breed it.
Under President Warren Harding the United States signed separate treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary in 1921.
The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.
Because he knew that Great Britain was critical to the decision, President Wilson, as Conference chairman, ruled that a unanimous vote was required. On 11 April 1919, the commission held a final session and the proposal received a majority of votes, but Great Britain and Australia opposed it. The Australians had lobbied the British to defend Australia's White Australia policy. The defeat of the proposal influenced Japan's turn from cooperation with the West toward more nationalistic policies.Macmillan, Paris 1919 p. 321
Venizelos proposed the Greek expansion on Thrace and Asia Minor (lands of the defeated Kingdom of Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire), Northern Epirus, Imvros and Tenedos, aiming to the realization of the Megali Idea. He also reached an agreement with the Italians on the cession of the Dodecanese (Venizelos–Tittoni agreement). For the Pontic Greeks he proposed a common Pontic-Armenian State.
As a liberal politician, Venizelos was a strong supporter of the Fourteen Points and of the League of Nations.
In Poland, the key provisions were to become fundamental laws that overrode any national legal codes or legislation. The new country pledged to assure "full and complete protection of life and liberty to all individuals...without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race, or religion." Freedom of religion was guaranteed to everyone. Most residents were given citizenship, but there was considerable ambiguity on who was covered. The treaty guaranteed basic civil, political, and cultural rights, and required all citizens to be equal before the law and enjoy identical rights of citizens and workers. Polish was of the national language, but the treaty provided that minority languages could be freely used privately, in commerce, religion, the press, at public meetings, and before all courts. Minorities were to be permitted to establish and control at their own expense private charities, churches and social institutions, as well as schools, without interference from the government. The government was required to set up German-language public schools in those districts that had been German territory before the war. All education above the primary level was to be conducted exclusively in the national language. Article 12 was the enforcement clause; it gave the Council of the League of Nations responsibility for monitoring and enforcing each treaty.Fink, "The Paris Peace Conference and the Question of Minority Rights"
The Armenian delegation was represented by Avetis Aharonyan, Hamo Ohanjanyan, Armen Garo and others. Azerbaijan's mission was headed by Alimardan Topchubashev. The delegation from Georgia included Nikolay Chkheidze, Irakli Tsereteli, Zurab Avalishvili, and others.
However, despite these attempts to influence the conference, the Zionists were instead constrained by Article 7 of the resulting Palestine Mandate to merely having the right of obtaining Palestinian citizenship: "The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine."
Citing the Balfour Declaration, the Zionists suggested that the British had already recognized the historic title of the Jews to Palestine in 1917. The preamble of the British Mandate of 1922, in which the Balfour Declaration was incorporated, stated: "Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country ...".Avalon Project, The Palestine Mandate
It has long been argued that Wilson's Fourteen Points, in particular, the principle of national self-determination, were primarily anti-Left measures, designed to tame the revolutionary fever sweeping across Europe in the wake of the October Revolution and the end of the war by playing the nationalist card.: "The first Western reaction to the Bolsheviks' appeal to the peoples to make peace—and their publication of the secret treaties in which the Allies had carved up Europe among themselves—had been President Wilson's Fourteen Points, which played the nationalist card against Lenin's international appeal. A zone of small nation-states was to form a sort of quarantine belt against the Red virus. ... The establishment of new small nation-states along Wilsonian lines, though far from eliminating national conflicts in the zone of revolutions, ... diminished the scope for Bolshevik revolution. That, indeed, had been the intention of the Allied peacemakers." From the other side of the political spectrum, John Lewis Gaddis likewise writes: "When Woodrow Wilson made the principle of self-determination one of this Fourteen Points his intent had been to undercut the appeal of Bolshevism" (). This view has a long history, and can be summarised by Ray Stannard Baker's famous remark that "Paris cannot be understood without Moscow." See .
From the other side of the political spectrum, John Lewis Gaddis likewise writes: "When Woodrow Wilson made the principle of self-determination one of this Fourteen Points his intent had been to undercut the appeal of Bolshevism" ().
This view has a long history, and can be summarised by Ray Stannard Baker's famous remark that "Paris cannot be understood without Moscow." See .