Three weeks before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, John Maynard Keynes resigned as the British Treasury delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. He then retired to Cambridge and wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
His treatise proceeded along two lines; (1) the ‘Carthaginian Peace’ (i.e. brutal crushing of the enemy as the only way to advance peace) with Germany could only further destabilize the world economy and hasten another war and (2) that old-school, emotionally-fuelled, European nationalism was to blame.
It is little wonder that Keynes focussed on the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau to demonstrate his point. It was easy to characterize him as ‘(1) old-school’ – not only was Clemenceau the eldest member of the Council of Four but he was French gentry, (2) emotional –Clemenceau wore his great passion for France on his sleeve and (3) misanthropic – not only did Clemenceau keep to himself but he was also openly disdainful of his colleagues, especially Poincaré.
It was equally easy to characterize him as unsympathetic; Clemenceau had a reputation for being ruthless – ‘he came from a family of wolves’ said a man who knew him well (Macmillan, 38). Likewise, it was easy to categorize Clemenceau as scornful of German mentality; as the result of the Franco-Prussian War, he had watched Paris starve, the French government capitulate, and the new German empire proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (Macmillan, 35). Besides, Clemenceau was a politician and harsh reparations was what the French public said they wanted; France had lost a higher proportion of its population than any of the other belligerents and six thousand square miles of France, which ‘before the war had produced 20% of its crops, 90% of its iron ore and 65% of its steel were utterly ruined’ (MacMillan, 36).
If Clemenceau viewed Europe’s future solely as a continuation of the ‘perpetual prize-fight’ of nations furthered at their neighbours’ expense, he was not the only one. For example, the Belgians also sought territorial gains (Sharp, 25) as did the Italians (Sharp, 26) and Greeks (Sharp, 28). On behalf of the British Empire, General Smuts, the South African prime minister, cleverly managed to gain long-sought access for British traders and investors to French and Portuguese colonies in Africa (MacMillan, 108).
If Clemenceau ‘made no pretence’ of being bound by US president Wilson’s ‘idealism’, he was not the only one. Whilst ostensibly Britain’s Lloyd George went along with Wilson’s centrepiece of Fourteen Points, creation of a League of Nations, he did little to further it (MacMillan, 95). As for ‘national self-determination’, even Wilson had to admit he might (inadvertently) have promised more than could be delivered (Sharp, 100).
According to MacMillan (46), John Maynard Keynes did much to create ‘myths’ about the Peace Conference and I suggest the one he wove about Clemenceau contributed heavily to the notion that everything that later went wrong was as the result. As MacMillan (500) points out, the Council of Four and their delegates did make mistakes and perhaps the Carthaginian Peace’ was one. But realistically it would always be up to those who came afterwards to make good or bad of them.
MacMillan, Margaret. Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World. London: John Murray (Publishers), 2002.
Sharp, Alan. Consequences of Peace – The Versailles Settlement; Aftermath and Legacy 1919-2010. London: Haus Publishing Ltd., 2010.