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Imperial peacemakers

Print edition : Dec 20, 2002 T+T-

AN Indian scholar and diplomat, a rare blend, remarked that if the United States attacks Iraq, it would be to write another Sykes-Picot pact. It was one of the many agreements and treaties which Britain, France and Russia freely concluded during the First World War (1914-1918) either to enrich themselves, with its future spoils, or to bribe others, like Italy, to join their side against the Central Powers Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Turkey. After the October Revolution, Russia published the secret treaties. But only in 1938 was the pact concluded in May 1916 between Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot dividing Turkey's territories in West Asia Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq published in London. It was as an appendix in that classic The Araba Awakening by George Antonius. Its sub-title was `The Story of the Arab National Movement'.

Having drawn the McMahon Line at Simla in 1914, India's Foreign Secretary Sir Henry McMahon became Britain's High Commissioner for Egypt. While wooing the Arabs to revolt against the Turks, he wrote in a confidential note to the Viceroy of India in November 1915: "What we have to arrive at now is to tempt the Arab people into the right path, detach them from the enemy and bring them to our side. This on our part is at present largely a matter of words and to succeed we must use persuasive terms and abstain from haggling over conditions... "

On this Prof. Michael J. Cohen of the Bar-Ilan University in Israel remarked devastatingly: "This confidential note is sufficient to indicate the worth of McMahon's later denials that he ever intended to include Palestine in the area allotted to the Arabs" (The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict; University of California Press, 1987, page 23). Such objectivity on sensitive issues is all too rare in India.

America's conquest of Iraq will have lasting consequences. Ariel Sharon's Israel will receive a boost. Britain will receive its share in the new spheres of influence thus carved out. The United Nations will die a lingering death; as did the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), without a dignified funeral ceremony. The new imperial and imperialist peacemakers will have none of the qualities of the ones who carved up Europe at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 at the end of the War U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and Italy's Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. And, they were an unprincipled and ignorant lot as Margaret MacMillan, Professor of History at Ryerson University in Toronto, reveals in her book. She blends erudition with entertainment, ferreting out systematically the moral failings of all who mattered then. She also mentions what became of them eventually, and traces the impact of the work of the Big Four on the decades that followed. The ones in power today are far smaller men. This formidable work of learning is very relevant to our times.

The Peace Conference began with miscalculation and mistakes and ended in confusion and disarray. The three European leaders were most relieved when, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany. But Wilson, no idealist when it came to using force in Mexico and elsewhere, brought in train his own ideological baggage to the dismay of his European colleagues. The harried masses on the Continent hailed him as a saviour; few noticed his feet of clay.

"Wilson remains puzzling in a way that Lloyd George and Clemenceau, his close colleagues in Paris, do not. What is one to make of a leader who drew on the most noble language of the Bible, yet who was so ruthless with those who crossed him? Who loved democracy but depised most of his fellow politicians?"

The author sets the form early in her work by recording: "Wilson's relations with women had always caused a certain amount of gossip. During his first marriage he had close, possibly even romantic, friendships with several women. His first wife, whom he had loved deeply if not passionately, had died in 1914; by the end of 1915 he was married again, to a wealthy Washington widow some 17 years his junior. That this caused gossip bewildered and infuriated him. He never forgave a British diplomat for a joke that went around Washington: "What did the new Mrs. Wilson do when the President proposed? She fell out of bed with surprise." This is a let-down. It was not a "joke". The incident has been recorded. The name of the diplomat, who was declared persona non grata, and subsequent fortunes were surely worth pursuing.

The War ended on November 11, 1918. While Germany became a Republic, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were gone. Old nations re-emerged; Poland after over a century; the Czechs after 300 years. A new union of several nationalities was born Yugoslavia. An American observer noted: "The `submerged nations' are coming to the surface and as soon as they appear, they fly at somebody's throat. They are like mosquitoes vicious from the movement of their birth."

Realistic to the core, Lloyd George said that "the task of the Parisian Treaty-makers was not to decide what in fairness should be given to the liberated nationalities, but what in common honesty should be freed from their clutches when they had overstepped the bounds of self-determination." This concept set popular imagination on fire. In its train followed plebiscites.

Wilson set the agenda with the Fourteen Points he propounded famously on January 8, 1918 "open covenants, openly arrived at", "absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas"; removal of economic barriers; equality of trade conditions, reduction of armaments; in determining "colonial claims", the "interests" not wishes of the people "must have equal weight with the equitable claims" of their colonial masters, evacuation of all Russian territory; restoration of the independence of Poland, Belgium, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro; return of French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine; readjustment of Italy's frontiers "along clearly recognised lines of nationality"; the peoples of Austria-Hungary to be given "the freest opportunity of autonomous development"; Turkish lands to have "a secure sovereignty", and "a general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees and of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike". This was the genesis of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations.

Clemenceau was not impressed. "What ignorance of Europe and how difficult all understandings were with him! He believed you could do everything by formulas and his Fourteen Points. God himself was content with ten commandments". They were supplemented with Four Principles in February 1918 and an official U.S. interpretation of the Fourteen in October 1918, to which Walter Lippmann had contributed. A group of American experts constituted "the Inquiry" to educate the leaders.

The Paris Conference began on January 18, 1919. The Treaty of Versailles, of which the Covenant of the League of Nations was a part, was signed on June 28, 1919. (The U.S. Congress rejected it). The Conference lingered on. Not only did the Fourteen Points conflict with the secret treaties and with the political compulsions of the three European powers, but were intrinsically none too easy to enforce. Did "autonomous development" imply autonomy or independence? All Arabs in revolt against Turkish rule, and Polish and Korean nationalists pinned their hopes on Wilson. "A young kitchen assistant at the Ritz sent in a petition asking for independence from France for his little country. Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam were too obscure even to receive an answer. A Korean graduate of Princeton University tried to get to Paris but was refused a passport. After the Second World War, Synghman Rhee became the President of a newly independent South Korea." American "experts" produced 60 reports on the Far East and the Pacific alone. One of them had in it that India "a great majority of the unmarried consist of very young children." The draft treaty on Austria forbade it from constructing submarines. Lloyd George enquired whether Serbs and Croats spoke the same language.

The only, but inapt, precedent was the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napolean. In 1919 the main participants were "the world's most powerful people. They met day after day. They argued, debated, quarrelled and made it up again. They made deals. They wrote treaties. They created new countries and new organisations. They dined together and went to the theatre together. For six months, between January and June, Paris was at once the world's government, its court of appeal and parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes. Officially the Peace Conference lasted even longer, into 1920, but those first six months are the ones that count, when the key decisions were taken and the crucial chains of events set in motion. The world has never seen anything quite like it and never will again."

The author proceeds to add: "Attractive women had a wonderful time in Paris that year. Few delegates had brought their wives; indeed it had been expressly forbidden most of the junior ranks. `All the most beautiful & well-dressed society ladies appear to have been brought over by the various Departments,' wrote Hankey (conference secretary) to his wife. `I do not know how they do their work, but in the evening they dance and sing and play bridge'. The puritanical suspected that worse was going on than bridge. An American female journalist travelled `with complete frankness and tremendous enthusiasm' with an Italian general. In the hotels where the delegation stayed, women wandered freely into men's rooms. A couple of Canadian Red Cross nurses who made quite a career of mistaking the number on the door and then refusing to leave had to be sent home."

Lloyd George's elder daughter, Olwen, a lively young married woman, came over for a brief visit. Clemenceau offered her a lift in his car one afternoon and, as they chatted, asked if she liked art. Yes, she replied enthusiastically, and he whipped out a set of salacious postcards. The author does not fail to mention that a junior diplomat there "was rumoured" to be an illegitimate son of Clemenceau.

Elsa Maxwell carried Balfour off to a night-club for the first time in his life. "Allow me to thank you", said the elder statesman with his usual courtesy, "for the most delightful and degrading evening I have ever spent."

This was the first international conference which the press covered, frustratingly. "Hundreds of journalists had arrived in Paris. The French government created a lavish press club in a millionaire's house. The press, men mainly but also including a handful of women, such as the great American muckraker Ida Tarbell, were ungrateful. They sneered at the vulgarity of the dcor and the Americans nicknamed it `The House of a Thousand Teats.' More importantly, the press complained about the secrecy of the proceedings. Wilson had talked in his Fourteen Points about `open covenants openly arrived at'. Like many of his catch-phrases, its meaning was not clear, perhaps not even to Wilson himself, but it caught the public imagination."

Even before the conference began, "the ground realities" to use a recent and hideous intruder in Indian English were changing. It was faced with a fait accompli in many a place, by armed force. "The mistake the Alies made, and it did not become clear until much later, was that, as a result of the armistice terms, the great majority of Germans never experienced their country's defeat at first hand. Except in the Rhineland, they did not see occupying troops. The Allies did not march in triumph into Berlin, as the Germans had done in Paris in 1871. In 1918, German soldiers marched home in good order, with crowd cheering their way; in Berlin, Friedrich Ebert, the new President, greeted them with `no enemy has conquered you!' The new democratic republic in Germany was shaky but it survived, thanks partly to grudging support from what was left of the German army. The allied advantage over Germany began to melt.

"And the allied forces were shrinking. In November 1918 there were 198 Allied divisions; by June 1919 only 39 remained. And could they be relied upon? There was little enthusiasm for renewed fighting... by the spring of 1919 Allied commanders were increasingly doubtful about successfully waging war on Germany. The German army had been defeated on the battlefield but its command structure, along with hundreds of thousands of trained men, had survived. There were 75 million Germans and only 40 million French... Who knew what resistance there would be as Allied armies moved further and further into the country? They would face, warned the military experts, a sullen population, perhaps strikes, even gunfire. It was very unlikely that the Allies could get as far as Berlin."

Many of the problems we have faced lately Bosnia, Kosovo, and South Tyrol are a result of the mistakes made in Paris. Imposition of a Jewish state on Arab Palestine was criminal folly. To the Serbs, Yugoslavia was an enlarged Serbia. "Although Serbs made up less than half of the population, they ran the new country." It lasted for only eight decades.

Hungary suffered the most, largely at the hands of Romania, which had defected to the Germans by a treaty in May 1918 and declared war on it only a day before the Armistice on November 11, 1918. It moved to occupy Hungarian Transylvania and Bukovina even before the Paris Conference could rule on the issue. The Allies planned to deal with it later. "Although the experts on the territorial commissions (eventually there were six in all) could not know it, almost all their recommendations were to go into the various peace treaties unchanged because the great men simply did not have the time to consider them in detail (emphasis added, throughout). The Romanian commission eventually broadened its scope until its experts determined the future shapes of Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria and the future balance of power in the Balkans, between Hungary and its neighbours and between Soviet Russia and the south-central Europe. "How fallible one feels here," Harold Nicolson, one of the British experts, wrote. `A map, a pencil, tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of the people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people. To think that in Paris the British enjoyed the services of historians like Arnold Toynbee and Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier.

The Czechs also seized Hungarian lands and acquired over a million ethnic Hungarians. But Transylvania was almost half of the old Kingdom of Hungary. It was rich and was woven into Hungarian history. It was under Hungarian rule for nine centuries till 1918. However, a British `expert' said that "the balance must naturally be inclined towards our ally Romania rather than towards our enemy Hungary".

Count Albert Apponyi led the Hungarian delegation to Paris in December 1919 when the leaders were impatient to go home. "Apponyi's statement was, in Lloyd George's opinion, a tour de force. He spoke in fluent French, then switched to equally impeccable English and concluded with flawless Italian. He pointed out that Hungary was being punished more severely than any other of the defeated nations. It was losing two-thirds of its territory and its population, it was being cut off from its markets and its sources of raw materials, and it was expected to pay heavy reparations. Three and half million Hungarians were going to end up outside Hungary. If the principle of self-determination was a fair one, and he thought it was, then surely it should apply to the Hungarians. At the very least, there should be plebiscites held in the territories being taken from Hungary."

Plebiscites were, indeed, held in nearly a dozen places in dispute. The notion that a plebiscite is inappropriate to a part of a nation is of recent origin. It is in fact a means of conflict resolution to settle territorial disputes, based on the wishes of the people.

Italy entered the war late on the side of the Allies and secured promises in a secret treaty. "In Europe the only one of Italy's claims that was settled easily was for a piece of Austria-Hungary south of Brenner Pass, the South Tyrol and below that the Trentino. The Trentino, which was largely Italian-speaking, was not a problem but the Tyrol was overwhelmingly German. The Tyrolese protested at the partition of a province with a long history of self-government. So did the government of the new state of Austria: `It is actually the Tyrol, till now, except Switzerland, the most burning centre of liberty and resistance to all foreign domination which will be sacrificed to strategic considerations, as an offering on the altar of militarism.' The Italians argued that Italy could be safe only if it held the land sloping up to the Brenner Pass. `Any other boundary to the south would merely be an artificial amputation entailing the upkeep of expensive armaments contrary to the principles by which Peace should be inspired'... Wilson later regretted that he had handed over so many German-speaking Tyrolese 250,000 of them to Italian rule. So did they, especially after 1922, when the Fascists decided to make them Italian. Overnight, schools and government offices were run in Italian, children could not be given names that `offended Italian sentiment'. It was only in the vastly changed Italy and Europe of the 1970s that the Tyrol finally regained some of its old autonomy." The dispute was settled only in 1992.

Yet, Wilson did not earn Italy's respect. Its Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino, remarked acidly that Wilson, "after ignoring and violating his own Fourteen Points, want to restore their virginity by applying them vigorously where they refer to Italy." The Italian press carried stories "that Wilson had been bribed by the Yugoslavs, that he had a Yugoslav mistress". The press is more restrained now, by comparison.

Wilson was very much privy to the transfer of China's Shantung Peninsula to Japan. Only British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, a former Viceroy of India, had the honesty to ask questions about Zionist schemes for Palestine which his predecessor, Balfour, and Lloyd George supported. "What is to become of the people of the country?" Palestinian Arabs, most of them Muslim but including some Christians, made up about four-fifths of population of some 700,000.

As for minorities, the author recalls: "In 1919 the world still shrank from the expulsion of minorities and it frowned on forcible assimilation. That left, it seemed, only toleration, of the minority by the majority, a quality that was in short supply in many countries. The peacemakers did their best to impose obligations on governments to treat their minorities well. The new states and some of the smaller powers in the centre of Europe had to sign treaties that bound them to treat their minorities equally, to tolerate their religions and to allow them such rights as using their own languages. Both the Romanians and the Yugoslavs protested. What about similar provisions for the blacks in the United States or the Irish in Britain, Queen Marie of Romania asked Wilson... The minorities' treaties remained a feeble gesture in the face of growing national chauvinism. The League gave up trying to supervise them by 1934 and the Great Powers had enough else to worry about besides obscure minorities."

The Treaty of Versailles has since come to signify an opportunistic treaty imposed by the victors over the vanquished. A corridor was carved out of German territory to give Poland access to the sea, the Saar basin was internationalised, Rhineland was demilitarised, and onerous reparations were extracted from the Germans. All in all, the treaty was a standing humiliation for the Germans.

Years later, publication of documents from the archives "undermined the assumption that Germany alone was responsible for the war". The honours were evenly divided. The author holds that "Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles". True. But it wounded the German psyche and left a scar on German minds. Hitler exploited it.

The Big Four were well aware of the dangers of revanchism. They sinned against the light. Harold Nicolson remarked in his excellent book Peacemaking 1919: `We came to Paris confident that the new order was about to be established; we left it convinced that the new order had merely fouled the old. We arrived as fervent apprentices in the school of President Wilson, we left as renegades.'

Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempts to End War