Today, ninety years ago, the Paris Peace Conference held its first official meeting with a sitting of seventy delegates and other dignitaries in the Salle d'Orloge of the French Foreign Ministry. For some days, unofficial diplomatic meetings had met in various venues in Paris, arranging the overall structure of the conference. In particular, the diplomats had already decided on that overarching structure of the four major Allied powers (France, Britain, Italy, and the United States) holding the reins of power, and working out basic structures, calling in the representatives of the smaller governments for consultation when needed. Hence, the "big" four became the heads of governments of the great Allied powers: Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, and Woodrow Wilson.
In any event, the Big Four, like all the other participants at the inaugural meeting of the conference, drove through a cold January rain from their respective hotel encampments in Paris. The meeting itself seemed to some observers a profound event. Emir Faysal, son of the King of the Hejaz (northwestern Arabia), was there in flowing robes. So were representatives of brand new European countries, premiers of revived Poland, newly independent Czechoslovakia, and others. But much of the "dignity" of the official meeting came from the French side. Georges Clemenceau, the French premier, had been chosen as President of the Conference, and he opened the conference with a speech reaffirming Allied unity of purpose. So did the prime ministers of the other Allied countries. The French President, Raymond Poincaré, also welcomed the delegates. In a high-blown speech condemning German megalomania, Poincaré called for a "peace of justice," made not by diplomats but by whole peoples. The first sitting of the conference duly ended, and the delegates went on their way through the wet streets of Paris.
Now for comment or two. Among those represented at this meeting, three powers which had sustained huge losses of men and material in World War I--actually more than the Big Four Powers in total--were strikingly absent: Germany, Russia, and Austria. Germany and Austria, of course, were losers, and we will examine later the ways in which Germans were kept far from Germanophobe Paris during the Conference. But Russia--the hardest-hit Ally--was also absent . Russia was now a Communist country (since the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917), and the revolutionary regime produced fear among the Allies. But we must also be attuned to other currents which made the absence of the Russians highly pleasing to the peacemakers. In any case, this great gathering to make a peace did not include representatives from a substantial number of those countries which had been at war.
And then there was this. There was much high-blown rhetoric in the first meeting, especially that of the French President Poincaré. Yet Poincaré's "peace of justice" did not necessarily imply what we might assume from our perspective of ninety years. Actually, Poincaré's speech was laced with venom against the Germans, and he was in the midst of a campaign to put large sections of western Germany under French control (and not just the "lost" Alsace-Lorraine). Poincaré was a conservative, hard-nosed French President whose whole view on international affairs started with a hatred of Germany. His rhetoric really implied a kind of punitive justice against the Germans, first and foremost, and then justice for everyone else of course.
Finally, for all the dignity of the opening, this Paris Peace was nothing at all like the ballroom atmosphere of Vienna in 1814, and indeed not much like the opening meeting in the Foreign Ministry. Instead of elegant aristocratic diplomats in elegant sitting rooms, the Paris conference looked more--as one participant noted--like a convention for traveling salesmen. The conference was dominated by the fifty-six committees that made reports. The whole was overlaid with maps, documents, background notes--there was a sea of paper. Each delegation brought with a staff of "filing girls" and other secretarial help. There were parties, but by and large, the conference represented an enormous amount of paper at the bottom and platitudes at the top.
We want to spend a lot of time looking at the points in between.