Overview

Paris Peace Conference


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(1919–20)

Overview

A congress attended by the participant powers of World War I, which led to the imposition of five peace treaties on the defeated Central Powers in the suburbs of Versailles (Germany), St Germain‐en‐Laye (Austria), Trianon (Hungary), Neuilly (Bulgaria), and Sèvres (Ottoman Empire). It was dominated, especially at the beginning, by Clemenceau (France), Lloyd George (UK), and Wilson (USA), and to a lesser extent by Orlando (Italy), who made up the Big Four. At the same time, the conference was an important step towards statehood for the British Dominions, which demanded, and received, representation independent of Britain.

Guiding principles

The various treaties that emerged were extremely problematic and proved a tremendous burden for subsequent stability in Europe. This was essentially the result of incompatible, and self‐contradictory, goals of the victorious powers.1. Wilson aimed at a just peace and national self‐determination based on the Fourteen Principles. Even by itself, this proved to be an impossibility, notably in those areas without a single dominant national ethnicity, where historical claims were ambiguous, and in pockets where national communities lived in isolation, surrounded by other ethnicities. Nevertheless, new states were created in an effort to take account of nationality and initial frictions were, perhaps, inevitable.2. Wilson's ideas for a ‘just’ peace clashed fundamentally with the French position, which was to punish Germany so severely that it could never start another war. The French succeeded in placing Germany's areas left of the River Rhine (Ruhr District) under international (mainly French) control, while the Saarland came under the authority of the League of Nations—all this in blatant disregard of US aims.3. British aims hovered somewhere between the French and the American positions. While Britain did manage to moderate the demands of the other two countries, notably France, its lack of alternative vision did little to enhance the conference's outcome.

1. Wilson aimed at a just peace and national self‐determination based on the Fourteen Principles. Even by itself, this proved to be an impossibility, notably in those areas without a single dominant national ethnicity, where historical claims were ambiguous, and in pockets where national communities lived in isolation, surrounded by other ethnicities. Nevertheless, new states were created in an effort to take account of nationality and initial frictions were, perhaps, inevitable.

2. Wilson's ideas for a ‘just’ peace clashed fundamentally with the French position, which was to punish Germany so severely that it could never start another war. The French succeeded in placing Germany's areas left of the River Rhine (Ruhr District) under international (mainly French) control, while the Saarland came under the authority of the League of Nations—all this in blatant disregard of US aims.

3. British aims hovered somewhere between the French and the American positions. While Britain did manage to moderate the demands of the other two countries, notably France, its lack of alternative vision did little to enhance the conference's outcome.

Evaluation

The conference thus produced the worst of all worlds, with nationalistic conflicts left unresolved and sometimes worsened. Even in Italy, a victorious power, it led to irredentist resentment. The defeated countries (which were mostly barely consulted), harboured immense grievances which rendered their domestic and foreign politics hostile and aggressive. Finally, the League of Nations, which had been created to settle unresolved conflicts and smooth out the problems of the peace settlement, was crucially weakened from the outset by the refusal of the world's most powerful nation, the USA, to enter, as a result of an isolationist Congress. The instabilities created by the various peace settlements have often been seen as a direct cause of World War II. While it is true that Mussolini and Hitler came to power partly through exploiting the resentment caused by the Paris Peace Conference, it would be wrong to conclude that its outcome made World War II inevitable. There was a period of considerable calm and normalization in the 1920s, while it was the economic crises immediately after the war (1918–23) and during the Great Depression that made continental Europe so volatile and gave nationalist movements their potency.

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Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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