The Paris Peace Conference opened on January 18, 1919, just ninety years ago. This great diplomatic summit meeting which produced five treaties was supposed to create a settlement that would conclude the Great War. That conflict itself had been advertised in various settings as "the war to end war." Hence, in some quarters—and certainly from the standpoint of public relations—there were high expectations that the resulting peace settlement would be something grand. The French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, was referring to these expectations when he entitled his 1930 memoir of the conference Grandeurs et misères d'une victoire (Grandeurs and Misfortunes of a Victory). Yet Clemenceau's title catches something of the cynical attitude that flowed in and around the conference. In his magnificent 1974 book The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell emphasized deeply ironic modes of the war that altered, as he thought, even the ways of remembering and interpreting the past ever since. Fussell was thinking more about the battlefield, but the irony marked the thinking of many about the settlement of the war as well, as Clemenceau's title suggests.
Design of a Violent Century is the beginning of a year-long project for me. It is my intention to "blog" the conference in a sense. In part I am looking to journal the conference—tell what was happening at a given time, etc. In part I intend to write a series of mini-essays on the history of the conference, its meaning, its consequences.
I am a historian by profession, and I have spent much of the last thirty years thinking about the Paris Peace Conference (in particular the Versailles Treaty, one of its most important diplomatic instruments). I have written a book about one small corner of the conference, and I have written a book about the Great War itself. I continue to work in the area of border settlements on Germany's border, and more generally the ethnic violence that was related to World War I and its conclusion. In this blog, I intend to develop some of my ideas in greater detail and to elucidate some aspects of peacemaking in 1919 that have not really made it into classrooms and textbooks from my own research, from recent literature, and from contemporary observers as well.
Caveat lector: While historians have periodically tried to rehabilitate the Paris Peace and its components, my view of the peacemaking is much more colored by the less than altruistic aspects of peacemaking and by the really terrible world that issued from the conference. Some historians still wish to see the conference in rosy terms, especially American historians. Yet with such works as Richard Blanke's Orphans of Versailles to Paul Hehn's A Low Dishonest Decade, historical research is still broadening and deepening our knowledge of the ways in which the Paris Peace settlement (along with the war itself and various earlier trends) helped create the terrible, violent century that followed.