The Paris Peace Conference, 1919

The treaty of peace with Germany brought to an end the principal phase of a war which lasted 51 months, became world-wide in its extent, and destroyed or altered the conditions under which formal relations had subsisted between the governments of the states concerned. The Paris Peace Conference faced the task of reestablishing relations between the belligerents by means of treaties of peace with the five states under armistice: Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Turkey.

The conference was the forum in which the terms of the treaties of peace with Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey were elaborated, agreed to, and signed. The proceedings began January 12, 1919. The conference in the broadest sense ended with the signing of the treaty of peace with Turkey on August 10, 1920. In a narrower sense the conference closed with the meeting of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs on January 21, 1920, with subsequent proceedings concerning only those governments directly interested. In general the pattern of procedure was a conference of the victors for drafting the terms by which the respective defeated states were to be bound, followed by a period in which the delegations of the latter states were present for written negotiations on the conclusive terms. Until May 7, 1919, when the Conditions of Peace were handed to the German delegation, the conference was a preliminary peace conference of the victor group; thereafter the two stages of the conference overlapped with respect to different enemy states.

The organization of the peace conference, therefore, centered around the arrangements made by the victor group for elaborating their terms. In form all the treaties of peace were bilateral, being instruments in which the multiple “party of the first part” included all belligerents which had entered the war against each of the respective enemy states, which were the single party of each treaty’s “second part”.

The peace conference was organized by the representatives of the United States, the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan, which came to be designated as the “Principal Allied and Associated Powers”. The rules of procedure of the preliminary peace conference (Foreign Relations, The Paris Peace Conference, 1919, iii, 172) [Page 4] determined the membership and the extent of representation in the following provisions:

“The Conference summoned with a view to lay down the conditions of peace, in the first place by peace preliminaries and later by a definite Treaty of Peace, shall include the representatives of the Allied or Associated belligerent Powers.

“The belligerent Powers with general interests (the United States of America, the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan) shall attend all sessions and commissions.

“The belligerent Powers with special interests (Belgium, Brazil, the British Dominions and India, China, Cuba, Greece, Guatemala, Hayti, the Hedjaz, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Roumania, Serbia, Siam, the Czecho-Slovak Republic) shall attend the sessions at which questions concerning them are discussed.

“Powers having broken off diplomatic relations with the enemy Powers (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay) shall attend sessions at which questions interesting them will be discussed.

“Neutral Powers and States in process of formation shall, on being summoned by the Powers with general interests, be heard, either orally or in writing, at sessions devoted especially to the examination of questions in which they are directly concerned, and only in so far as those questions are concerned.”

Owing to this structure precise terms to define part or all of the groups came into usage. The following phrases were employed at Paris (and are so employed throughout this publication) with the signification indicated:

  • Principal Allied and Associated Powers—The Governments of the United States of America, the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • Principal Allied Powers—The Governments of the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • Allied and Associated Powers—All the states other than Germany which signed the treaty of peace with Germany.
  • Allied Powers—The states other than the United States of America and Germany which signed the treaty of peace with Germany; or the states acting for the group; or only the Principal Allied Powers.

In order to attain agreement that would represent a consensus and because of the volume, magnitude, and complexity of the questions to be decided, an extensive series of commissions and committees was [Page 5] set up to which all exploratory work was assigned. The mere list of personnel of these bodies as they existed on April 1, 1919 occupies 90 pages (ibid., 1919, iii, 1). According to the nature of their assignments, they were either representative or expert in membership.

The Principal Allied and Associated Powers managed the extensive committee work through meetings of the President of the United States, who headed the American Commission To Negotiate Peace, and the heads of the other four principal delegations. They met with their ministers for foreign affairs as the Supreme Council from January 12 to March 24, 1919, popularly known as the Council of Ten until President Wilson’s departure on February 14. Until his return on March 24 and until the signing of the treaty of peace with Germany, definitive decisions were made by the Council of Four, in which the representative of Japan did not participate. It was a council of five when Japan was represented. From March 27 to June 25, 1919 the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs—the Council of Five—took decisions within their authority. The Supreme Council reappeared after the final departure of President Wilson. In it the heads of the five Governments or the ministers of foreign affairs handled business from July 1, 1919 until January 10, 1920, the United States being continuously and responsibly represented up to December 9, 1919. Immediately after the treaty of peace with Germany went into force the representatives of the Principal Allied Powers met as the Council of Heads of Governments or the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs from January 10 to 21, 1920. The latter was followed by the Conference of Ambassadors, but as late as the London conference of March-April 1921 the meetings of the heads of Governments were often called gatherings of the Supreme Council. Moreover, titles differ in the records in French and English.

However this top body of the peace conference was organized, it fell to it to reach the decisions on the reports of commissions or committees and on the presentations of national delegations. These were embodied in formal articles drafted by the representatives of the Allied and Associated Powers and then submitted as Conditions of Peace to the defeated states in plenary sessions of the peace conference. The ensuing written negotiations determined the final text of the treaties of peace, which were signed by all interested parties. The most significant questions of the settlement were determined in the earlier stages of the peace conference.

By the time the German Conditions of Peace were ready, the principal problems of the peace settlements had been given solutions, and it remained to apply the principles adopted to the particular situations [Page 6] of the ex-enemy states. The four treaties of peace which went into force are not only similar in form but are identic, mutatis mutandis, throughout a great part of their texts (see comparative table, p. 36). Approximately 290 of the 381 articles, as well as 8 annexes, of the treaty of peace with Austria repeated the provisions of the treaty with Germany. The treaty with Hungary was more and that with Bulgaria somewhat less of a borrowing from the provisions applied to Germany.

The timetable of the main stages of progress for each treaty works out as follows:

  • Germany. The “Conditions of Peace” were communicated to the German delegation at a plenary meeting on May 7, 1919. Written negotiations of some length ensued. “Observations on the Conditions of Peace” were handed in by the German delegation on May 29, and the “Reply of the Allied and Associated Powers” was delivered on June 16. A German cabinet crisis and a sharp correspondence in the form of an ultimatum brought a new delegation to Versailles for the signing of the treaty on June 28, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Germany’s ratification was deposited on July 12, but uncertainty as to the intentions of the United States delayed the entry of the treaty into force, without the United States, until January 10, 1920.
  • Austria. The Austrian delegation was summoned for June 2, 1919, received the “Conditions of Peace” on July 20, and handed in their “Observations” on August 6. That treaty of peace was signed at Saint-Germain-en-Laye on September 10, 1919, entering into force on July 16, 1920.
  • Bulgaria. The Bulgarian delegation received the “Conditions of Peace” on September 19, 1919 and made their “Observations” on October 25. The treaty of peace was signed at Neuilly-sur-Seine on November 27, entering into force on August 9, 1920.
  • Hungary. The Hungarian “Conditions of Peace” were dated January 15, 1920, and their “Observations” handed in on February 20. The treaty of peace in final form was submitted to the Hungarians on May 6 and signed by them at Trianon on June 4, 1920, entering into force on July 26, 1921.
  • Turkey. The treaty of peace with Turkey was the last of the main instruments of the conference to be concluded. Only tentative preparations for making this treaty with the last of the defeated belligerents had been taken when the treaty of peace with Germany was brought into force on January 10, 1920. The “Conditions of [Page 7] Peace” were worked out at London in 69 meetings between February 12 and April 10 and at San Remo in 17 meetings between April 18 to 26, and transmitted to the Turkish representatives on May 11. Their “Observations” of June 25 were considered at Spa on July 7, and the “Reply” was dated July 16. The completed treaty was signed at Sevres on August 10, 1920 but did not enter into force. Peace with Turkey was eventually concluded by 17 instruments negotiated at the conference of Lausanne in 1923, the main treaty being signed on July 24, 1923, and entering into force on August 6, 1924.

The timetable and later stages of the settlement itself were affected by uncertainty concerning the position which the United States would take. Without waiting for participation of the United States, it would have been possible to have brought the treaty of peace with Germany into force by the middle of October 1919, with a consequent acceleration of steps with respect to other parts of the whole settlement. The Supreme Council advised the German delegation on November 1 to be ready to attend the ceremony of bringing the treaty into force upon five days’ notice, and itself counted upon the 10th. The adverse vote on the treaty by the United States Senate on November 19 caused a postponement to December 1. There ensued an argument with the German delegation whether some modification of the treaty should not take place “in compensation for the absence of American delegates on commissions”. The problem of putting the treaty in force for the Principal Allied and Associated Powers without the “Associated Power” worried the Supreme Council until January 9, 1920. The required procès-verbal for the first deposit of ratifications was executed the next day.

With the peace conference in course of disbandment at the time of the entry of the treaty of peace with Germany into force, the interim Committee To Coordinate the Interpretation and Execution of the Clauses of the Treaty With Germany was no longer an appropriate channel of action. Its temporary character was understood at its authorization by the Supreme Council on July 2, 1919, and that committee devoted its early attention to the creation of a continuing organ which could be given authority to pass upon current questions.

This organ was the Conference of Ambassadors, which played the principal role for the Allied and Associated Powers after the treaties of peace with Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary entered into force. It originated in an American proposal called forth by a recommendation dated July 23, 1919 made by the Committee on Execution of the Clauses of the Treaty to the Supreme [Page 8] Council of the peace conference. The plan was approved by the Supreme Council on July 28 and ordered into being by the Supreme Council by means of its resolution of December 13.

The Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs on January 21, 1920 decided to call the committee set up by that resolution the “Conference of Ambassadors” and to invest their Ambassadors at Paris with the “full powers” held by the Supreme Council, except that the body was given no jurisdiction over questions arising out of the treaty of peace with Turkey. As finally determined, the functions of the Conference of Ambassadors embraced questions concerning the interpretation and execution of the treaties of peace, “with the exception of those entrusted by them to the League of Nations, or to the Reparation Commission, those for military, naval and air control and for the left bank of the Rhine or other permanent organs of the same character”. The conference held its first meeting on January 26, 1920 and took 2,957 resolutions at 327 regular sessions up till March 30, 1931. It sat at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. Belgium was admitted for Belgian questions after March 1920. The French representative presided, and the Ambassadors of Great Britain, Italy, and Japan sat as members, with the Ambassador of the United States as an intermittent “observer”.

Collaborating with the conference was the Allied Military Committee “of Versailles”, which dealt with military questions of the treaty’s execution, in virtue of a decision of the Heads of Governments on December 13, 1919, until its dissolution from March 16, 1931. The conference had other aids. It called on naval counselors of the four principal powers for advice and reports, and set up the Technical Geographical Committee to assist it with reference to delimitation and territorial questions. A Technical Committee on Railroads, a Financial Committee, and an Editing Committee served the conference in their respective fields.

The action of the Conference of Ambassadors was taken in four forms: (1) Resolutions, effective decisions without appeal which could be questioned only by the Governments represented on the conference; (2) declarations, more solemn acts which engaged the general policy of the ex-allied states; (3) protocols, signed by the Ambassadors and plenipotentiaries of states, with which questions of application of the treaties were regulated; (4) procès-verbaux (minutes) of their meetings.