Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lunch With Toynbee: Harold Nicolson at Work on the Peace

Harold Nicolson, son of a diplomat, born into an upper-class British family in Tehran in 1886, was one of the most interesting and articulate chroniclers of the Paris Peace Conference. Having served as a diplomat himself since 1909, he was part of the British delegation at the conference, and in particular designated as a specialist for issues relating to Southeastern Europe.
Nicolson's educational, social, and vocational background set him up to have dinner or luncheon with just about everyone of any importance during the Conference. On January 29, 1919, the well-connected diplomat had lunch with another member of the British delegation, the well-connected historian Arnold Toynbee, a personage later famous both for his works on world history, as well as for his role in the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Mention of lunch with his friend is brief, but Nicolson's diary entry gives us a kind of microcosm of the Conference:

January 29, Wednesday
To the Quai d'Orsay in the morning. I have been summoned, as the Czechs are to make their statement to the Council of Ten, and I am supposed, for some odd reason, to be a Czech expert. In the ante-room are Kramarsh and Benes sitting on gilt chairs as if awaiting the dentist. Kramarsh large, bluff, hair en brosse, exuberant, has a nice German smell. Benes small, yellow, silly little imperial [beard], intelligent eyes rather like Keynes's, fine forehead. We speak about Teschen, its coal; Oderberg, its railway connections; the Hungarian Ruthenes, the "Carpatho-Russians." In the middle Pichon emerges from his room like a fussy owl. Says we needn't stay. Off we go.

Lunch with Toynbee and meet a Major Johnson, the geographical expert of the American delegation. He is crammed with information and I shall go into things thoroughly with him and look at his maps. Work hard afterwards at the Czecho-Slovak "case" as presented to the Supreme Council. Conclusions: Bohemia and Moravia, historical frontier justified, in spit of fact that many Germans would be included. Teschen, Silesia, Oderberg, justified: Slovakia, Danube frontier not justified to extent claimed; Hungarian Ruthenes justified and desirable; the "Serbs of Lusatia" mere rubbish; the "corridor" to connect with Jugo-Slavia completely unjustified.
The French are beginning to sneer at P.[resident] W.[ilson] and the Americans.
So the real action on this day was a combination of sitting in a waiting room, networking at lunch, and hard study of frontiers and borderlines. No need to understand the details of the "Checho-Slovak case" yet if you don't already. We will get to it in due time.

Nicolson's record of the Conference is one of the gems of diplomatic memoirs. He combined his [no doubt edited] diaries of the time with an appreciation written many years later. The book is: Harold Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919, London, 1933. It can be found here on Google Books, and is still in print and for sale.


  1. Nice to see Toynbee pop up in the story here. Toynbee was an enormous influence on a historian nearer to my own field, Walter Prescott Webb. In his own understated way, Webb gushed about Toynbee's grand concepts. And Toynbee himself repaid the favor by offering a brief introduction to Webb's own The Great Frontier.

  2. Toybee was quite a force. Imagine him rubbing shoulders with Keynes, John Foster Dulles, Isaiah Bowman, and Colonel House at the Conference!

  3. Completed Harold Nicolson Diaries a month ago ( Nigel Nicolson) and now just finishing up his biography Vol 2 (James Lee-Milnes) .

    Nicolsons particapation at the peace conference was incredible. What I find interesting was incredibly rude attitude of Clemenceau . Harold thought him a beast at times . Wilson he considered inept and wholly without the required world knowledge of the essential issues and without sufficent State Dept representation ( those people who knew what was what)

    Harold Nicolson somewhat later (circa 1938-39) considered a couple of the main reasons for Hitler gaining power was the result of the allied powers leaving Germany destitue and the rejection of the Czech Corridor agreement which would have seperated 200,000+ German citizens from the Slavic territories. I might be wrong on the names of the agreement but it was something along those lines.

    What also I find totally amazing is that while the peace talks were in progress Harold not only had to deal with extereme pressure of the conference he also had to deal with an extreme stressful martial problem concerning his wife Vita Sackville-West's affair with Violet Trefusis ( Victorian residual+ recent Edwardian era!! egads ) .

    Next Stop : Peacemaking 1919


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