Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918

Date: 1937

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World History


An American Delegate’s Criticism of the Methods of the Peace Conference


It is not too much to say that the Peace Conference never met. The Conference of Paris was a meeting of the enemies of the Central Powers, which dictated treaties for each of the ex-enemy States and hardly listened at all to their protests against the conditions imposed upon them. To the post-war generation in every country this fact seems now almost as incredible as it did to the leaders of liberal Germany at the time. They had dared to hope that a peace based upon the Wilsonian program would offer the new German Republic an opportunity to co-operate to the full in building the structure of a world community. Instead, they were not only rebuffed in their efforts to negotiate but the members of their Delegation suffered the personal humiliation of ostracism in their retreat at the Hôtel des Réservoirs at Versailles. For this treatment the French Government was immediately responsible. But the responsibility rests as well upon a war-worn public opinion in England and America, benumbed by suffering and exhausted by both the effort of the war and the long strain of overwrought emotions. There was no wide movement of opinion against the treatment of the ex-enemy Delegations, only ineffectual protests from quarters that were, rightly or wrongly, suspected of pro-German sympathies. In the United States, the opponents of Wilson attacked his conduct Of negotiations on other grounds. . . .

A dictated peace was accepted by all who had lost confidence in Germany’s good faith, and that included the great majority of Americans as well as of the English and of the French. If, as Clausewitz phrased it, war was the continuation of policy, diplomacy was, as far as the conflicting aims of the contestants were concerned, the continuation or summation of war. Military leaders were afraid that what was gained on the battlefields would be lost at the council table, and both the "Khaki Election" in Great Britain and the attitude of the French Chamber showed that these apprehensions were widely shared. The debates in the American Congress, while Upon the whole maintaining the high note of disinterestedness in material gains, showed no lack of stern purpose to carry through the "Great Crusade" to its appointed goal—that of democracy triumphant without a doubt, and so recognized in Berlin. . . .

Whether the peace was to be dictated or not, it was necessary for the Allied and Associated Powers to work together and to accept a common program. The winter months showed how difficult this was and what rifts might easily disrupt their forces. The discontent of Italy and the breach between China and Japan, which had such a strong reaction in Washington, were but indications of what might happen more generally. . . . It was chiefly to prevent the delegations of the Central Powers from exploiting this situation that they were kept so carefully isolated from the Conference to which they had supposed that they were invited. Conscious of how French diplomacy itself had divided the Allies opposed to it in the Congress of Vienna, the Quai d’Orsay saw to it that no German Talleyrand would have access to the counsels of the Allied and Associated Powers. Held off like prisoners from even social contact with former friends, the delegations of Germany and Austria and Hungary were held in strictest quarantine and under police supervision in their separate quarters in Versailles and St. Germain. When the real treaty-making should have begun, in the exchange of views over the detailed proposal of the draft treaty, the task was declared ended, and the signature of Germany was procured by the threat of an occupation of Berlin; the Allied armies were moved out beyond the bridge-heads of the Rhine, and were ready at a moment’s notice to force the issue. There was nothing for Germany to do but accept. Nevertheless the German protests even under these circumstances did bring a certain measure of alleviation, enough to show how much more could have been attained had there been a fair chance at negotiation.

. . . . .

But the faulty organization of the Preliminary Peace Conference . . . had left its traces on the text. When the Treaty was finally put together it was evident to any fair-minded person that it was more than any country should be asked to bear, although—in spite of their critics—the majority at least of those who drafted its clauses were fair-minded men, as fair-minded and as liberal as could be found anywhere. But it had not been put together in time. The fault lay not so much in this or that single section of the Treaty, for in most cases these sections contained provisions that were not without justification and were not merely the embodiment of vindictive and arbitrary power over a helpless victim. What was wrong with the Peace Treaty was that, when all the sacrifices were added together, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. It was impossible to accept because impossible to fulfill on the part of the citizens of the conquered nations and still maintain a decent standard of living. Since Germany had to take the Treaty as a whole, it, therefore, had every right to regard the cumulation of injury as vitiating all parts. Yet, had there been a negotiated peace, much of the Treaty Would still have been kept.

The failure to see all this at the time was directly due to the fact that the organs of the Conference, as they finally developed, were never properly articulated with each other or with the directing heads. Covering so vast a field, which included almost all the conditions of life of all Europe and of much of the colonial world outside, the treaty was prepared in more than a dozen different commissions, each working at its own task and each task large enough for a full-sized treaty of its own: territorial questions, economics, conditions of trade, the safeguards of minorities and nationalities, and all the problems arising from the devastation of the war and the menace of its recurrence. It was only when these separate sections were finally put together that the makers of the different parts of the Treaty became aware of the nature of the whole document; and that was not until the Germans had been already summoned to Versailles.

3 From J. T. Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, New York, 1937, pp. 41–44. By permission of The Macmillan Company, publishers.


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Chicago: J. T. Shotwell, ed., "An American Delegate’s Criticism of the Methods of the Peace Conference," Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918 in Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, ed. Walter Consuelo Langsam and James Michael Egan (Chicage: Lippincott, 1951), 6–8. Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022,

MLA: . "An American Delegate’s Criticism of the Methods of the Peace Conference." Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, edited by J. T. Shotwell, in Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, edited by Walter Consuelo Langsam and James Michael Egan, Chicage, Lippincott, 1951, pp. 6–8. Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: (ed.), 'An American Delegate’s Criticism of the Methods of the Peace Conference' in Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918. cited in 1951, Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, ed. , Lippincott, Chicage, pp.6–8. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from