Britain, France and the USA won the First World War. In 19l9 their leaders met together in Paris to decide on the future of Europe and the world. These leaders were known as the Big Three.
What were the motives of the Big Three in 1919?
Problems for the winners
The leaders of the victorious countries faced a number of complex problems:
• Germany had nearly defeated Britain, Russia and France single-handed. How could the winners make sure that Germany could not fight another war in the future?
• Communists had seized power in Russia. Communists wanted to destroy all other capitalist governments by workers' revolution.
• Central and Eastern Europe were in chaos. The royal families of Germany and Austria-Hungary had abdicated before the peace conference.
• The British and the French governments had entered into a number of secret treaties during the war. They had promised Japan special treatment in Asia. Under the Treaty of London of 1915 Italy had agreed to join the allies in return for the promise of gains from Austria-Hungary. Japan and Italy now expected to be given their rewards.
• Nationalists in Eastern Europe had set up new governments even before the war had officially ended. By early November 1918 there were new states in Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
• The end of the war came more quickly than the allies had expected. The victorious allies had given little thought to the arrangements for the peace. When they did begin discussing the peace it became clear that the winners had very different views about the future.
Differences between the Big Three
Perhaps the biggest problem faced at the peace conferences was fact that the winning countries had very different views about what should happen next The key players were the so-called Big Three (The term 'the Big Four' is used when Italy is also included.)
The differences between the Allies were hidden while the war was fought. The French and the British did not agree with many of Wilson's views. However, they had been desperate to make sure the USA supported the war. During the war, they kept quiet in public for fear that disagreement would limit the American war effort. Once the fighting had stopped the French and the British started to side with the Americans.
A 'just peace' or reparations?
The American President Wilson was a very religious man. His aim was a just peace. He believed that God wanted him to make the world a better place. He disliked his allies in Britain and France. Wilson believed that politics was a simple matter of right and wrong. The European leaders were more concerned about selfish national interest than doing good.
Wilson thought that Europeans had caused the war and it was America's mission to stop this happening again. In 1919 Wilson said, 'I do not mean any disrespect to any other great people when I say that America is the hope of the world. And if she does not justify that hope the results are unthinkable.' He thought that the old style of politics could be swept away if a new world organization was set up called the League of Nations.
Wilson was a great believer in the idea of self-determination. This meant that each nation should have the right to decide for itself how it should be governed. Living far away in America, Wilson did not appreciate how difficult self-determination was in much of Eastern Europe. If Czechs and Germans and Slovaks lived together in an area, who had the right of self-determination?
The opposite of self-determination was imperialism: the control of many nations by one powerful empire. The British and the French were imperialists. Their governments were very suspicious of talk of self-determination.
Britain and France wanted reparations from Germany. This was the payment of compensation for the damage caused in the war. Wilson was much less concerned about reparations. Britain and France had built up huge debts to pay for the war; they saw reparations as a way of getting rid of these debts. The USA did not have enormous war debts. Indeed, America was owed much of the money borrowed by Britain and France.
The Fourteen Points
Woodrow Wilson made his own idealistic aims clear a year before the Paris conference. Speaking in January 1918, long before the war ended, President Wilson stated what he wanted as Fourteen Points.
The response of the European allies
The British and the French leaders did not agree with all the Fourteen Points. The French leader, Clemenceau, asked why Wilson needed as many as 14 when God had made do with only 10 commandments. The Fourteen Points attacked many ideas that the French and British held dear. They were also annoyed at what the Fourteen Points did not say. Wilson said nothing about the future of Germany and ways of making Germany pay reparations for starting the war.
Clemenceau and a harsh peace
The French leader at Paris was Georges Clemenceau. His nickname was 'the tiger'. He was aware that most French people wanted revenge for the devastation of the war. The level of destruction was like no previous war and much of the bloodshed and destruction had taken place in France.
France had suffered greatly during the First World War. A quarter of all French men aged 18-27 had been killed. Another 4 million had been wounded. Much of north-eastern France had been devastated. The French government had borrowed huge sums of money to fight the war and was faced with an enormous debt. The French wanted Germany to pay for all these losses. They also wanted revenge for the defeat in the war of 1870-71 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.
Ideally the French wanted to break up Germany into a number of small, weak states. Failing this, Clemenceau called for Germany to lose the Rhineland, Saarland, Upper Silesia, Danzig and East Prussia. These areas included much of Germany's coal and heavy industry.
The French leaders disagreed very strongly with the USA over the question of compensation or reparations. The position of the USA was very different to France and Britain. For the two European countries, particularly France, the war had been an economic catastrophe. The USA had not suffered economically during the war and had no demands for substantial reparations.
Lloyd George and a compromise peace
Lloyd George was the British Prime Minister. He occupied the middle ground between France and the USA. Like Clemenceau he had to listen to public opinion at home. This had been influenced by a press campaign demanding harsh treatment for Germany. He was not personally anxious to punish the Germans severely. He was afraid that if Germany was too weak this would give France too much power in Europe.
The chief concern of Lloyd George was to make sure that the British Empire did not suffer as a result of the settlement. There was an early difference of opinion between Wilson and Lloyd George over the future of the former German colonies.
Wilson hated imperialism and he wanted the colonies to be looked after by the new League of Nations until they became independent. Lloyd George wanted them divided up between the winning powers. Lloyd George wanted to make sure that South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were rewarded with nearby German territories. Both Britain and France also wanted a share of the former Turkish lands of the Middle East.
The British government team was suspicious of France. Traditionally France had been an enemy of Britain. The British did not want a Europe dominated by France any more than they wanted a German-controlled Europe. This was another reason for making sure that Germany was not too harshly treated. Lloyd George was also worried that a weak Germany would be unable to stop the spread of communism.