One of the favorite indoor sports of historians is taking potshots at the statesmen who made the decisions at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. How could they have been so stupid on such issues as German reparations, claims of the nationalities and arranging borders in the Middle East? However, all of these issues seem much simpler in retrospect than they did to the decision makers at the time.
We have had SDGs on World War I and the Paris Peace Conference. This proposed SDG is somewhat different. Rather than the usual presentation and discussion of each set of issues, the idea here is for the weekly presenter to argue the case of a nationality or country and for the SDG members to put themselves in the position of the three principal decision makers at the Conference-- Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau-- and to discuss and debate with the presenter the merits of the claims advanced by the presenter and what would be a reasonable result. In this way, we should be better able to experience the difficulties and pressures felt by all of the Conference participants.
The defeat of Germany, the Austrian Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire meant that the winners’ decision makers had to listen to the requests and claims of many countries and ethnic groups (including allies) as they reconfigured Europe and the Middle East. Many of these claims conflicted with each other and with the objectives of the winners, even claims of the winners were sometimes not merited by the claimant’s contribution to the War effort, and others rested on historical and ethnic grounds which were questionable, murky and/or not well understood by the decision makers. Another major set of conflicts requiring resolution was the extent to which ideas of punishment of the defeated countries should be controlling and, more particularly, what to do about Germany. Despite the difficulties, decisions had to be made, and they were.
The first sessions of the SDG will necessarily set the scene, with information and discussion about the makeup of Europe and European possessions before the War and the condition of Europe at the start of the War. We will also consider the backgrounds of and pressures on the three decision makers and selection of the format for the Conference. The balance of the weekly sessions will be devoted to the type of dialogue and debate indicated above, including consideration of whether responsibility for the War rested exclusively with Germany.
The discussion of each claim will include the following: the justice of the claim; the politics of the claimant’s region; the emotions, politics and objectives of the winning countries; the anticipated results of alternative possible decisions; the fear of Bolshevism; the ways in which facts on the ground were changing as the Conference proceeded; and the particular reactions and actions of the three decision makers. Each discussion will also include an evaluation of the wisdom of the decision made, both then and in the years which were to come.