PARIS — There has been nothing quite like it before or since. The peace conference that took place here just 90 years ago was more complex and ambitious than anything that took place after World War II, or at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. And some of the failures of the Versailles and other treaties are haunting us still.
The victorious Allies of World War I set about to do nothing less than to re-draw the map of Europe out of the ruins of four empires, the German, the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. They did not have an entirely free hand in dismembering Russia, because the Red Russians and the White Russians were still fighting over it.
The decisions that the Allies made here in 1919, and into the early 1920s, created new colonies in the Middle East and transferred old colonies to new owners in Africa and Asia. There was an attempt to honor President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about self-determination for ethnic and linguistic groups, but more often that was compromised.
Harold Nicolson, who was part of the British delegations, described the scene at the Quai d’Orsay, where the Allies often met. In that room heavy with tapestries, under the “simper of Marie de Medici ... , Hungary is partitioned … indolently, irresponsibly partitioned … Then tea and macaroons.”
Some of the delegates suspected they were creating a giant mess. “A just and lasting war,” was what some said. Archibald Wavell, later Field Marshal, called it the “peace to end all peace.”
In retrospect the worst decisions involved the unseemly colonial grab, disguised as League of Nations’ “mandates,” for the Ottoman lands. Churchill had predicted the problem as WWI broke out, asking what will happen to “scandalous, crumbling, decrepit and penniless Turkey in this earthquake?” Later, he would write that “nowhere had (the Allies') victory been more complete than over Turkey; nowhere had the conqueror’s power been flaunted more arrogantly.”
What is interesting today is how many of the borders of 1919 have survived, and how many have been changed in the intervening years. Hitler and Mussolini did a lot of border changing. But their actions were mostly reversed in 1945.
In 1919 the Allies thought nothing about putting new borders around large populations. In 1945 it was the people who had to move while the borders, for the most part, stayed the same.
It took World War II to chase the Japanese out of the old German North Pacific islands they had inherited in 1919, islands such as Truck, Saipan and Tinian. And after World War II both Russia and Poland took big steps west, as Germany was further diminished.
But it wasn’t until the iron curtain crumbled that the old 1919 entities, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, came apart. Richard Holbrooke, when he was negotiating a Bosnian peace, said he was “burying another part of Versailles.” Other countries of 1919, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, re-emerged from the Russian control under which they had languished before 1919.
The most dramatic of the 1919 border changes came after the allies decided to divide up what is now Turkey between themselves. Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, chased all the allies out of the Turkish speaking parts by 1923, abolished the Muslim Caliphate, and created the modern state of Turkey.
In the Arab lands of the Ottoman empire, secretly divided up between the British and French before the peace conference even began, the borders have mostly stayed the same today. The French would expand Lebanon, mixing Sunni, Shia Muslims in with Christians in a stew that bedevils the region to this day. The French gave a bit of Syria to Turkey before they left. And the Jews would, in time, wrest all of the Palestine Mandate away from the Arabs after the British had left.
The State of Israel owes its existence to the declaration to the British statesman, Arthur Balfour, who promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It is not clear that he meant the whole of Palestine, and he made feeble efforts to insist that the Arab inhabitants not be disadvantaged. The allies who met with Zionist and Arab representatives here in February of 1919, however, were far more interested in creating a lasting peace with Germany, than with Ottoman matters. But that failed too.
The retreat from borders decided upon in 1919 goes on even today with the Kurds, who were denied a country at the peace conference in 1919, slowly but surely carving out their independence in Northern Iraq — the consequences of which may be a new just and lasting war.
For those wishing to read more on this crucial moment in history, I would recommend:
"The World Crisis, The Aftermath" – Winston Churchill
"Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World" – Margaret MacMillan
"A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919, And The Price We Pay Today" – David A. Andelman
"A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East" - David Fromkin
More columns by HDS Greenway: