A Bitter Harvest - The Paris Peace Conference

Historical events are seen through the prism of those that observe them. Nowhere is that more true than the Paris Peace Conference that began in January 1919 and culminated in the Versailles Peace Treaty that was signed in June but which rumbled on for a few more months even though the main dramatis personae had returned home. Though the chief protagonists, Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau settled many, if not most, of the great issues in their private sessions, the narrative of the conference was fixed for posterity by John Maynard Keynes who attended as the chief economic adviser despite his distrust of Lloyd George and distain for the American President.

In his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which was a huge bestseller he combined economic analysis with political polemic delivered with vivid pen portraits of the protagonists that are purple to the point of camp. This is Lloyd George: ‘How can I convey to the reader,’ Keynes asks, ‘any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this siren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity?’ Er...yes, but Lloyd George was a provincial solicitor from chapel-going mid Wales. The extension of his thesis, that the peace terms set Germany up for Hitler makes a wonderful determinist narrative but is probably wrong - as Etienne Mantoux in his 1946 Carthaginian Peace of the Economic Consequences of Mr Keynes well argued. Far from being bankrupted by reparations, Germany was well able to rearm in the 1930s. The famous cartoon of 1919 draws the same straight arrow to 1940 - surely more by luck than anything else.

There is, because of what happened twenty years later, an understandable focus on the terms of the treaty as it affected Germany and, in consequence, Europe. What is less appreciated is the huge ambition and scope of the conference - only rivalled by Vienna in 1814. The world was being reshaped. Countries were bought into existence, amongst them Poland and Czechoslovakia, ethnic minorities  were squeezed into political jackets that did not fit and the world outside Europe was  carved up to suit the victorious powers. Its baleful influence on the Middle East is still felt there today where religious and ethnic realities were subsumed into the real politic of the need for oil. As Keynes saw, Wilson’s high minded ideals and vanity (it is difficult to exaggerate the popularity of the President when he arrived in Europe) made him easy meat for the carnivorous British and French Prime Ministers. He was a "blind and deaf Don Quixote’ said Keynes, ‘ entering a cavern where the swift and glittering blade was in the hands of the adversary." He had set out his famous Fourteen Points, but "in fact the president had thought out nothing," said Keynes . He had "no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House." He couldn’t even manage his own constituency as he had refused to reach across the aisle and take with him to Paris his Republican adversaries in a non-partisan manner. They bided their time and the treaty never got ratified by Congress. He suffered a catastrophic stroke in his attempts to go over the heads of Congress and sell it to the people directly in a whistle-stop tour of the country by train. 

Theresa May might have learnt something from his experience.

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