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Part III
Peace and security, 1918–1919
On 16 November 1918, with the ink newly dry on the armistice, premier
Clemenceau met with a gathering of senior foreign ministry officials to discuss
peace conditions and negotiating strategies. There was general agreement that
there were two central objectives to be obtained for the future security of
France. The first was a transformation of the European strategic balance
through peace conditions that would weaken German power while at the
same time strengthening that of France. The second was a continuation of
the wartime coalition to secure the political and military support of both Britain
and the USA in the post-war era. It was by no means clear that these two aims
could be reconciled. ‘One cannot always satisfy Jacques without displeasing
Jean,’ Clemenceau observed.1 Compromises would have to be made.
At the heart of plans to overturn the European power balance were familiar
projects to detach the Rhineland from Germany and create a buffer state which
would be drawn into France’s political orbit. This bid for a ‘Rhenish peace’,
advanced formally by the Clemenceau government in late February 1919, has
cast a long shadow over the historiography of French security policy. The
French peace programme is nearly always represented as a traditional bid to
achieve security through military preponderance. This interpretation is part of
a wider narrative of the peace conference as a struggle between the power
politics of ‘old Europe’ and the idealism of Woodrow Wilson. The earliest
and one of the most extreme articulations of this view was John Maynard
Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace. In what remains probably the
most influential book ever written about the peace conference, Keynes characterised Clemenceau as a French Bismarck and the chief advocate of a
‘Carthaginian peace’.2 This judgement has been endorsed by historians ever
since. Clemenceau’s approach to international politics, according to one
Cited in K. Hovi, Cordon Sanitaire or Barrière de l’Est? The Emergence of the New French European
Alliance Policy, 1917–1919 (Turku, 1975), 139–40.
John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London, 1919), 32 and 35
respectively: ‘His theory of politics was Bismarck’s. He had one illusion – France; and one
disillusion – mankind.’ Recent iterations of this thesis are P. Cohrs, The Unfinished Peace after
World War I (Cambridge, 2006), 30–67 (esp. 48–51) and H. Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York,
1994), 20–2, 44–54; more nuanced are M. MacMillan, Paris 1919 (New York, 2001), 29–32
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Beyond the Balance of Power
eminent scholar of the peace conference, ‘was based first and foremost on
Realpolitik and an avowed belief in the balance of power’.3
There is much evidence to support this interpretation. Although a number of
historians have tried to argue that French policy was inspired chiefly by the threat
of revolution, even a cursory look at the relevant archival material leaves no
doubt that French planning and policy was dominated by the German problem.
The conviction that limiting German power was crucial to France’s future
security was a core element in this planning. Projects to create strong ‘successor
states’ on the Reich’s eastern marches, limitations on its armed forces, punitive
economic measures and plans to detach and neutralise the Rhineland were all
traditional solutions based on power-political calculations. The traditional
dimension to French peace policy is a central theme in the memoirs of both
Clemenceau and his chief adviser, André Tardieu. Both emphasised that the
Versailles Treaty weakened Germany considerably and, if enforced properly,
would have made another German bid for power impossible.4
Yet a favourable Franco-German balance was not the only motivation
guiding French policy. The three chapters that follow will argue that the
French peace programme was more open-ended and innovative than is generally recognised. Internationalism did not provide the guiding principles for
the Clemenceau government’s policy. But internationalist themes, from an
international organisation based on the rule of law backed up by powerful
sanctions to a multilateral economic system that would include Germany,
were part of the French programme. Even more significant was the importance attached to democratic transformation in Germany and to the principle
of self-determination. These dimensions to French policy have not received
the attention they deserve in the existing literature.
The stock image of Clemenceau, that of an incorrigibly cynical statesman
who saw no future apart from a permanent effort to keep Germany down, is
overdrawn and misleading.5 There can be no denying his profound suspicion
of Germany. The premier was convinced that many years must pass before the
Allies could put faith in Germany’s democratic transformation. But emphasis
and 157–203; Z Steiner, The Lights that Failed: European International History, 1919–1933
(Oxford, 2005), 21–4 and 69–70; and R. Boyce, The Great Inter-War Crisis and the Collapse of
Globalization (London, 2009), 23–74.
A. Lentin, ‘A Comment’ in M. Boemke, G. Feldman and E. Glaser (eds.), The Treaty of
Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (Cambridge, 1998), 229; see also A. Sharp, The
Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking in Paris, 1919 (London, 1991), 188–94; P. M. H. Bell,
France and Britain, 1900–1940: Entente and estrangement (London, 1996), 110–19, 157–203.
For penetrating assessments of the historiographical issues at stake see W. R. Keylor,
‘Versailles and International Diplomacy’ and D. Stevenson, ‘French War Aims and Peace
Planning’, both in Boemke et al. (eds.), Treaty of Versailles, 469–505 and 87–109.
Georges Clemenceau, Grandeurs et misères d’une victoire (Paris, 1930); André Tardieu, La Paix
(Paris, 1921).
It is difficult to find studies of either French policy, or the peace conference more generally,
that do not attribute critical importance to the premier’s pessimism, cynicism or ‘realism’.
Partial exceptions, interestingly, are Clemenceau’s biographers David Watson and JeanBaptiste Duroselle.
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Peace and security, 1918–1919
on his pessimism ignores other aspects of his political catechism that also
shaped his approach to peace making. The Tiger had a long record as a radical
defender of democratic liberties in both parliament and the press. His commitment to the principles of self-determination and democracy was genuine. It
determined his position when it came to the most fundamental issues shaping
the peace settlement. Alongside the aims of territorial adjustment and a weakening of German power was a thoroughly transatlantic conception of a democratic post-war order that allowed for the possibility of political and economic
cooperation with a reformed and democratic Germany. The flexible and
fundamentally multilateral character of this ‘larger strategic design’ overlapped
with prevailing internationalist visions of peace and security in ways that have
not been acknowledged in the existing literature.6 French policy was certainly
more ambiguous than Clemenceau was later willing to admit. Along with his
chief lieutenant, André Tardieu, he would spend much of the 1920s denouncing the failure of successive governments to impose the letter of the Versailles
Treaty.7 But this post-war posturing has done much to obscure the complex
character of his government’s peace programme.
At the war’s end Clemenceau had secured an unusually powerful position from
which to speak for France in peace making. Fêted as père-la-victoire, the premier
enjoyed unprecedented levels of popular support for a politician of the Third
Republic. His popularity, which only increased after he survived an assassination
attempt the following February, was rivalled only by that of Marshal Foch. It
translated into immense political authority and placed him in a virtually unassailable position in relation to parliament. Clemenceau used this authority to claim
absolute control of peace negotiations. Virtually all of the crucial decisions during
the peace conference were taken by the premier in consultation with his narrow
circle of advisers. Leading parliamentarians were rarely informed about the
course of negotiations and never consulted. Even Clemenceau’s cabinet was
marginalised and played no part in deliberations over momentous issues such
as France’s frontier with Germany, the fate of eastern Europe or reparations.8
Yet the premier and his team could not make peace in any way they liked.
From the outset, Clemenceau sensed that absolute security in the traditional
sense was unattainable. ‘We may not have the peace that you and I should wish
for,’ he observed to Poincaré even before the fighting had ceased.9 In
Exceptions include S. Schuker, ‘The Rhineland Question: West European Security at the
Paris Peace Conference of 1919’ and G.-H. Soutou, ‘The French Peacemakers and their
Homefront’, both in Boemke et al. (eds.), The Treaty of Versailles, 275–312 and 167–88
respectively; as well as D. Stevenson, ‘France and the German Question in the Era of the
First World War’ in S. Schuker (ed.), Deutschland und Frankreich Vom Konflict zur Aussöhnung:
Die Gestaltung der westeuropäischen Sicherheit 1914–1963 (Munich, 2000), 1–18.
See esp. J.-B. Duroselle, Clemenceau (Paris, 1988), 896–952 and M. Trachtenberg, Reparation
in World Politics: France and European Economic Diplomacy, 1916–1923 (New York, 1980), 102.
D. R. Watson, Georges Clemenceau: France (London, 2008), 331–43; Duroselle, Clemenceau,
Poincaré, Au Service de la France, vol. X: Victoire et armistice, 6 Sept. 1918: 336.
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Beyond the Balance of Power
November 1918 the pre-war order had been destroyed. France’s population
emerged traumatised from a conflict that had pushed it to the very limit of
national endurance. The terrible human and material costs of the war, along
with the expectations for social and political transformation that came with
victory, placed powerful constraints on French policy. Popular expectations,
crucially, often ran counter to the policy aims of France’s allies.
British and American policy presented a formidable challenge to French
peacemakers. Wilson had repeatedly framed the war as a struggle to install a
new international system based on morality and cooperation rather than power
politics: ‘The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the
world depends,’ the US president had insisted,
. . . is this: Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new
balance of power? . . . There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of
power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.10
The early optimism of French mandarins that France’s chief allies could be
brought round to support the central objectives of French security policy was
unfounded. Though they disagreed on specific issues, both British and
American leaders were united in rejecting all projects for breaking up
Germany or placing any part of German soil under permanent occupation.
All of these complications were compounded by important changes in the
normative context within which foreign and security policy was made. In
1919 the global tide of popular enthusiasm for transforming world politics –
and more specifically for replacing the balance of power with international
cooperation and collective security – could not be ignored.
There were nonetheless powerful counter-currents to this trend that were
also a product of the wartime experience. By 1918 a consensus existed within
French opinion that Germany bore overwhelming responsibility for the war
and must be punished. There was also wide agreement that the very nature of
the German national character posed a permanent threat to peace.11 This
marked an important change from pre-war understandings, particularly on
the centre-left. On the eve of war, internationalist-minded observers had
retained the view that, however distasteful the Kaiser’s regime might be, the
fundamental threats to peace were systemic. For doctrinaire socialists the
problem was international capitalism. For juridical internationalists the problem was a lack of the rule of law in international society. In 1918, however,
nearly all residual conceptions of a ‘good’ Germany had been submerged by
four-and-a-half years of human sacrifice, material destruction and official war
propaganda. The assumption that Germany was malign, that it had caused the
war and that it must be forced to pay for reconstruction went virtually
Link et al. (eds.), The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. XL, Wilson Speech, 22 Jan. 1917, 535–6.
This paragraph is drawn principally from P. Miquel, La Paix de Versailles et l’opinion publique
française (Paris, 1972), 236–48.
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Peace and security, 1918–1919
unchallenged across the political spectrum. More importantly for post-war
conceptions of peace and security, the notion that the German national character
could be reformed was greeted with scepticism, particularly within mainstream
opinion. ‘If the spirit of the world has changed,’ observed Le Temps, the centrist
newspaper with close ties to the Quai d’Orsay, ‘that of Germany is untouched
and remains dominated by pride, megalomania and a lust for conquest.’12 Only
on the left, among more class-conscious socialists and trade unionists, was
this deeply pessimistic interpretation of the German national character rejected
in favour of a more hopeful vision of a reformed social democratic Germany that
would play a responsible role in European political progress.
These ambiguities and complexities were an important part of the structural
context in which security policy took shape. But this policy was also shaped to
an important extent by the instincts and ideological convictions of the premier.
These are impossible to categorise neatly; they had been acquired over the
course of a political career that stretched back to the Franco-Prussian War and
the Paris Commune.
Clemenceau, the patriot of the generation of 1871, aimed at a peace based on
a favourable balance of power and territorial guarantees against future German
aggression. The old radical of the generation of 1848, conversely, believed in
democratisation and self-determination. He therefore attached greatest priority to cooperation with the great Atlantic democracies. The ambiguity that
resulted, which reflected wider divergences over national security within the
French public sphere, was a central characteristic of peace planning. The
problem is that historians have underlined the importance of 1871 in shaping
Clemenceau’s peace programme but ignored that of 1848.13
It was precisely because of its open-ended and Atlanticist character that
Clemenceau’s final peace programme came in for virulent criticism from
advocates of a more traditional approach. Foch was only the foremost of a
large and influential number of soldiers, diplomats and deputies who argued
that the centre of gravity for France’s security policy must be the Rhine.
The three chapters that follow will not provide a blow-by-blow narrative of the
months between the armistice and the ratification of the various treaties that
made up the Paris settlement. They will instead focus on the conceptual
architecture of French security policy as it evolved from autumn 1918 through
summer 1919. If the dominant consideration in this policy was the problem of
German power, the policy process was complicated by a host of domestic and
international constraints. Together these challenges conditioned all French
efforts to shape a new international order.
Le Temps, 11 Feb. 1919.
These ambiguities are also acknowledged in D. Watson, Georges Clemenceau: A Political
Biography (London, 1974), 331–76; Duroselle, Clemenceau, 720–7; and Soutou, ‘French
Peacemakers’, 169–72.
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