FOR SIX MONTHS IN 1919, Paris was the capital of the world. The Peace Conference was the world’s most important business, the peacemakers its most powerful people. They met day after day. They argued, debated, quarreled and made it up again. They created new countries and new organizations. They dined together and went to the theater together, and between January and June, Paris was at once the world’s government, its court of appeal and its parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes. Officially, the Peace Conference lasted into 1920, but those first six months are the ones that count, when the key decisions were taken and the crucial chains of events set in motion. The world has never seen anything quite like it and never will again.
The peacemakers were there because proud, confident, rich Europe had torn itself to pieces. A war that had started in 1914 over a squabble for power and influence in the Balkans had drawn in all the great powers, from tsarist Russia in the east to Britain in the west, and most of the smaller ones. Only Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries had managed to stay out. There had been fighting in Asia, in Africa, in the Pacific islands and in the Middle East, but most had been on European soil, along the crazed network of trenches that stretched from Belgium in the north down to the Alps in the south, along Russia’s borders with Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary, and in the Balkans themselves. Soldiers had come from around the world:
Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Indians, Newfoundlanders to fight for the British empire; Vietnamese, Moroccans, Algerians, Senegalese for France; and finally the Americans, maddened beyond endurance by German attacks on their shipping.
Away from the battlefields, Europe still looked much the same. The great cities remained, the railway lines were more or less intact, ports still functioned. It was not like the
Second World War, when the very bricks and mortar were pulverized. The loss was human. Millions of combatants – for the time of massive killing of civilians
Had not yet come – died in those four years: 1,800,000 Germans,
1,700,000 Russians, 1,384,000 French, 1,290,000 from Austria – Hungary, 743,000 British (and another 192,000 from the empire) and so on down the list to tiny Montenegro, with 3,000 men. Children lost fathers, wives husbands, young women the chance of marriage. And Europe lost those who might have been its scientists, its poets and its leaders, and the children who might have been
Born to them. But the tally of deaths does not include those who were left with one leg, one arm or one eye, or those whose lungs had been scarred by poison gas or whose nerves never recovered.
For four years the most advanced nations in the world had poured out their men, their wealth, the fruits of their industry, science and technology, on a war that may have started by accident but was impossible to stop because the two sides were too evenly balanced. It was only in the summer of 1918, as Germany’s allies faltered and as the fresh American troops poured in, that the Allies finally gained the upper hand. When the war ended on 11
November, everywhere people hoped wearily that whatever
Happened next would not be as bad as what had just come to an end.
Four years of war shook forever the supreme self-confidence that had carried Europe to world dominance. After the Western Front, Europeans could no longer talk of a civilizing mission to the world.