On 18 January 1919, the Peace Conference opened in Paris, bringing together the victors of the First World War to prepare the peace treaties. From the very opening, new nations expressed their aspirations to autonomy and independence. We look back on the beginning of the conference through exclusive documents from our diplomatic archives.
The Peace “Congress” was the fruit of active negotiations between the French, led by Georges Clemenceau and supported by their British and Italian allies, on the one side and the American President Wilson on the other. It was inspired by the great Congresses that marked the history of international relations in the 19th century and gradually introduced multilateral diplomacy: Vienna in 1915, Paris in 1856 and Berlin in 1878.
The Conference sought to determine the new national borders, set down the major principles of international relations to guarantee lasting peace, and lay the ground for multilateral diplomacy by shaping the new League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson advocated a conciliatory attitude with the defeated powers and hoped that the Fourteen Points he outlined on 8 January 1918 would guide the delegations. In his opening address, the President of the French Republic, Raymond Poincaré, stressed the need to establish a “just peace” and called upon the diplomats present to banish dreams of conquest and empire:
The time when diplomats could meet and redraw by authority the map of empires on the back of an envelope. If you are to redraw the world map, then it is in the name of peoples and upon the condition of faithfully translating their thoughts; respecting the right of nations large and small to be autonomous and reconciling that with the equally sacred rights of ethnic and religious minorities.”
The proclamation of the principle of nationalities fostered the aspirations to autonomy and independence of new nations, such as Armenia, Persia and Egypt which asked the Conference to recognize their existence or the authorization to send delegations to put forward their claims.
Armenia: letter from Paul Petros XIII Terzian, Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia, to Georges Clemenceau (14 January 1919)
In this letter, the Patriarch asked that the Conference “deign to look as fairly as possible at the destiny of the Armenian nation and obtain complete liberation while guaranteeing its independence.”
Egypt: Letter from Saad Zaghloul, head of the Egyptian delegation, to Georges Clemenceau, and memorandum of claims (29 January 1919)
In this letter, the head of the delegation protests against the impossibility of submitting its memorandum of claims during a session and asks Clemenceau to refer their case officially to the Peace Conference. The memorandum seeks to set out the reasons why Egypt can claim its full rights to a free existence and total independence.
Persia: Letter from Moshaver al-Mamalek, Foreign Minister of Persia, to Paul Dutasta, Secretary-General of the Conference (14 February 1919)
He officially asks that his government be allowed to take part in the Conference and for this request to be submitted to the President of the Conference.
From November 1918, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to consider how it would be organized. The list of participants was drawn up: as in 1815, delegations were invited from the States taking part in the negotiations.
Twenty-seven States were represented, including France which was allotted five representatives, like the United States, the British Empire, Japan and Italy; while Belgium, Brazil and Serbia were granted three; China, Greece, Hedjaz, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Siam and Czechoslovakia were allowed two; while Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay had one each. The British dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa were to be represented separately from Great Britain, with two representatives each, along with India, which also had two representatives. New Zealand had one representative. Montenegro would be allowed a seat once the situation was cleared up, while the issue of Russian representation was left pending. The defeated powers, however, were not invited.
The fate of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires would be settled in their absence, unlike that of France when it was defeated in 1814-1815, as Talleyrand had successfully influenced negotiations.
The role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs represented almost a quarter of the French delegation and, through its diplomats, played a very active role both within the decision-making bodies of the Conference and in the many committees and commissions. In addition to plenipotentiary delegates such as diplomat Jules Cambon, who chaired the credentials committee, there were technical advisers and specialists in political, legal and economic issues.
The Secretary-General was Paul Dutasta, French Ambassador in Bern, who provided political support to Georges Clemenceau. Clemenceau, meanwhile, was elected President of the central body, the Supreme Council or “Council of Four” made up of Wilson, Lloyd George, Orlando and Clemenceau. They began to meet in December 2018, in order to prepare the negotiations.