Lloyd George at Versailles

Lloyd George the Negotiator
An essay by David Newton


This essay about Lloyd George's conduct at the Conference was posted by David Newton on 3/4/2002 at 17:51 on the History Politics and Current Affair forum.  It is no longer available on the web.


The Treaty of Versailles was the closing chapter of the war that was, in the wave of morality and idealism that supposedly swept Europe then, the war to end all wars. The treaty emaciated the German military machine, slapped crippling reparations on her and removed swathes of land from the German Empire. Most historians now believe that the Treaty of Versailles was a key element in the causes of another, far more destructive war. The fact that the leaders of the victorious Great Powers drafted a treaty that appears to actually have been harmful to their long-term interests apparently says little for their understanding of the situation. With hindsight however, it is easy to make such judgments. In reality the leaders of the United States, Britain and France all had their best interests at heart when they began the peace conference; interests born out of their own notions and ideas of how the world worked. The trouble was they were all fundamentally incompatible, and herein lays the fault of the treaty and the skill of Lloyd George.

In the atmosphere of incompatible aims and with each country ruthlessly pressing their own interests it is a wonder anything was done at all. The Treaty of Versailles essentially represents a polyglot of compromises, empty words and half executed solutions; it was an exercise in expediency and the satiation of differing elements rather than a real attempt at a solid, overarching solution. In this tangled web Lloyd George did extremely well. He managed to balance and juggle a number of considerations and still see to it that Britain’s interests were largely fulfilled.

Pragmatism dies hard in a European statesman and Lloyd George showed a certain amount of ruthlessness, deceit and pragmatism in his dealings with France and America. In the end, the Treaty was not to bring about a viable solution to the German Problem, but rather satisfy the conflicting aims and interests of each of the delegates; there was no solidarity as regards to a final solution. The essence and purpose of the conference was fundamentally perverted. Nonetheless, Lloyd George even amongst this perversion still achieved results, no doubt in the belief that he was making the most of a bad situation.

Like all the delegates, Lloyd George had his nations best interests at heart. Indeed, he was the only delegate to perhaps satisfy them; whereas France and the US had to settle for compromises ultimately based on lies. Prior to the war the United Kingdom had sought to maintain the balance of power by threatening to intervene on the side of the weakest, thereby deterring any further action. However, by 1914 it seemed that Germany had become more powerful than all of the Continent combined and that the intervention of Britain would no longer be decisive and worse, likely lead to a war against a superior foe. Therefore a return to the status quo was not in Britain’s best interests. Being a maritime nation, and having a large and widespread Empire, Britain wanted and gained control of the seas with the internment of the German High Seas Fleet. This removed the threat to the Empire and would ultimately allow it to expand without fear. Of course, the age-old interest of expanding the British Empire was furthermore accomplished by the handing over of former German colonial possessions. The fact that they were officially mandates was of no real relevance.

Lloyd George was an astute man and realised the two-step process required to formulate foreign policy in a representative democracy. Forming the policy is only half the trouble, justifying it to a public is another matter; neither can the public be ignored in the formulation of policy - especially by a man whose power was built on popularity at home. The public unlike at Vienna could not simply be ignored. Lloyd George realised the folly of crippling Germany by a harsh and vindictive peace but he had also to balance not only the wishes of the French but also the desire for revenge in his own people. He balanced them well; on the surface he spoke of ‘squeezing the German lemon until the pips squeak’, but behind the scenes he worked hard to see that the peace was as moderate as possible, which when one considers what Clemenceau had in mind, it was indeed not as bad for the Germans as the case may have been.

With British interests as always laying beyond Europe, and in any case already satisfied, it is plain that Lloyd George was in the perfect position to mediate between France and the United States, both of whose policies conflicted fundamentally.

In the days of Vienna a solution was brought about by sheer pragmatism, co-operation and the placing to one side of morality. Europe was re-drawn to suit the Great Powers at the expense of others, the balance of power thereby created kept Europe free from a general conflagration for nigh on one hundred years. The pragmatism of European diplomacy still existed in 1919 and may have brought about a more coherent strategy as regard to the German problem if it had not been for the idealistic Woodrow Wilson interfering in a system of diplomacy of which he knew nothing. Whereas previous European statesmen attempted to use the scepticism and suspicion inherent in European relations to a good purpose: in order to sustain a balance of power; Wilson romantically denied reality and tried to pretend that such conventions did not exist as he stood on his moral high ground espousing the virtues of man. Such a blatant disregard for the lessons of history and the contempt he held for a system that had done Europe well was disastrous for the peace process. He referred to the maintenance of a balance of power as, ‘jealous watchfulness and an antagonism of interests’; which may be, but by issuing that statement he completely misses the point that as odorous as those virtues are, they kept the peace for one hundred years! As such his claims have no basis and are the prattlings of a man too wound up in his own righteousness. As Clemenceau said, ‘He [Wilson] speaks like Jesus Christ’.

France was the antithesis to Wilson’s romanticism. When asked by Wilson if he had ever visited Germany, Clemenceau replied, ‘No . . .but twice in my lifetime Germany has visited France’. France wanted a harsh and vindictive peace, not only because the public howled for it, but also because geopolitics demanded it. France emerged victorious from the war but realised that victorious or not they were simply no match for even a defeated Germany. Whilst Wilson harked to self determination and strove for the creation of states which conformed to nationality, France realised that the only way to keep Germany in check was to straddle her borders with powerful nations to maintain the balance of power - exactly what self-determination would not accomplish. But, like Britain, France was, financially due to huge debts, in the hands of the United States. Instead, as some sort of counter proposal, she demanded the annexation of the west bank of the Rhine, a proposal disconcerting to Wilson.

Incredibly the Treaty of Versailles actually made Germany potentially more powerful than she had ever been before or since! The creation of an independent Poland saw to it that there was now a buffer between Russia and Germany that removed the need for Germany to fight on two fronts. Whereas before the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had provided some sort of balance to the east, through Wilson these bulwarks were destroyed and in their place sprouted a number of smaller, weaker and inexperienced states. Germany, from now on was free to concentrate entirely on her old enemy and the only one she could reach, France. Taking this disturbing factor into account it is easy to see the reason why France clamoured to see Germany dismembered and destroyed as a military power. Therefore Wilson and Clemenceau’s aims were utterly and fundamentally irreconcilable. With France’s very survival as a sovereign and independent nation at stake, it is hard to believe that ‘The Tiger’ would have backed down. However, Lloyd George offered the surrogate solution of an alliance between the UK, France and US with guarantees to France over defending against future German aggression; and furthermore a proposal to see the Rhine demilitarised was put forward. Lloyd George therefore offered a way out, a solution acceptable (barely) to both sides. He realised that France sought only security from more German aggression and he offered it by other means. His deviousness became apparent here: the treaty was essentially a farce with the US refusing to ratify it (as only the US Congress can declare war) and Britain paid only lip service to it. Lloyd George using the same single-mindedness that made him PM deliberately deceived France so as to end the deadlock. He made further progress possible even if the means were somewhat suspect.

Lloyd George’s role at Versailles was essentially that of a well-placed mediator attempting to forge the policies of France and America into a coherent strategy. Superficially he did well. The peace was not as harsh as France would have hoped; Wilson had his self-determination and illusions; the allied countries were largely satisfied at the reparations and France had guarantees against German aggression. He was astute enough to take into consideration public opinion and ensured the satisfaction of British interests. From a totally selfish point of view by accomplishing the latter he did exactly what was expected of him as a representative of Great Britain.

However the fact remains that the Treaty of Versailles was hollow, Lloyd George knew it before it was even over, ‘I cannot conceive any greater cause of war than that the German people . . . be surrounded by a number of small states . . . clamouring for reunion with their native land’. But nonetheless he kept faith in the prospect of the League of Nations putting right at a later date what they could not get right at the time. The fact that the Treaty supposedly sparked another war is as irrelevant as the Second World War was inevitable. The Germans had tasted their first defeat since Napoleon and it was their refusal to recognise this defeat that led to their desire for revenge. This was exacerbated by the allied populations vindictive desire to see Germany crushed and humiliated.

Lloyd George was hardly crucial to the conference although without his mediation on occasion, progress would surely have been more difficult. Not only did he recognise that neither America nor public opinion at home could be ignored, he recognised the insecurity France felt toward Germany and sought to allay their fears and move on. He sought to steer a subtle path around France and the United States whilst at the same time having Britain’s best interests in mind.

In the end Wilson had his self-determination but not his lenient peace; France had her reparations and demilitarisations but lost her counter-weight to Germany in the east and was not entirely satisfied with Versailles. Britain on the other hand destroyed the German Fleet, expanded her Empire and received reparations to boot - achievements that exactly conformed to pre-war British aims By letting Wilson get his way in some areas he also secured an ally and a special relationship with America. These facts speak for themselves. Lloyd George had a most successful conference.