One hundred years ago, on 28 June 1919, the victorious powers in the First World War signed the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. It was followed by treaties with Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey — the defeated powers in a conflict in which millions lost their lives. The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 was supposed to translate the hopes of all those who fought “a war to end all wars” into a golden future.
The leaders of the victors, David Lloyd-George (Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Woodrow Wilson (United States) and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Italy) had put aside domestic politics, travelled to Paris and proceeded to redraw the map of the world in their own image and national interests. President Wilson proclaimed the right to national self-determination of all nations — but this did not apply to those outside Europe.
As history records, the treaty’s flaws were a factor in the rise of Nazism and Hitler used German grievances to mask his plans to dominate Europe and to instigate the murder of six million Jews.
Germany’s citizens felt humiliated, despondent and angry at the sudden turn of events during the autumn of 1918. Even before their delegation left to sign the agreement, there were leaflets, circulating in Berlin, stating that it was composed of Jews “who sold Germany to the Allies”.
On the same day as the signing of the Versailles Treaty, a Polish minority rights agreement was also signed which was designed to offer protection to ethnic minorities in eastern Europe in the bitter conflagration between Poles, Ukrainians and others after hostilities had ceased between Germany and the Allies. Just days after the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, Polish troops committed a pogrom in Lemberg (Lviv). This was followed by atrocities in Pinsk and Vilna. The Poles initially strongly resisted committing to a minority rights agreement and had even refused to respond to a draft of the document.
The Paris Peace Conference was the first occasion when the Jews as a national group had a voice in the international arena. The international Comité des Delégation Juive had come to France to argue for the rights of persecuted Jewry. It professed faith in the newly formed League of Nations and that justice for the Jews would prevail.
The Zionists had managed to secure a slot to put their case before the Council of Ten at the Peace Conference. Others struggled to gain admittance to the proceedings — the Emir Faisal, the foremost leader of the Arab world at the time and a proponent of a unitary state for all Arabs, was initially barred by the French.
With little behind him, Chaim Weizmann was the consummate diplomat, rushing from one meeting to another, cultivating the high and mighty. He was adept at charming the English upper class, whose members were often disparaging towards Jews. As the Foreign Office’s Robert Cecil put it: “One forgot Weizmann’s rather repellent and even sordid exterior.”
Weizmann’s presence in Paris was crucial as Clemenceau had recently promised not to contest British rule over Palestine. His focus was on protecting France from a future invasion from Germany and he expected Britain in turn to support the establishment of a buffer state in the Rhineland.
No one endorsed Clemenceau’s proposal. Two decades later, France was defeated within weeks in 1940 despite the Maginot Line.
On 27 February 1919, the Zionists, Nahum Sokolov, Menahem Ussishkin and Chaim Weizmann addressed the Council of Ten. Sokolov spoke about the travails of Jewish history while Weizmann suggested that five million Jews could be settled in Palestine without affecting the indigenous Arab population. A million persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe, Weizmann claimed, would leave at a moment’s notice. However it was the veteran Ussishkin who impressed because he addressed the Council in a seemingly dead language, Hebrew, “the tongue of kings and prophets which we have never forgotten”.
Ussishkin majestically projected the biblical imagery of a people who had survived against all the odds down the long centuries of dispersion. He told them: “I, a son of these exiles, come to you in the name of my bereft people, to you who serve both politically and culturally as the heirs of the Romans, and make my demand to you.
Rectify the injustice of that historic robbery, restore our land to us!” The allusion to Old Testament grandeur and implicitly a common Judeo-Christian heritage was politically astute, yet the first Zionist map of 1918 did not reproduce any border in the Hebrew Bible. It instead concentrated on practical concerns such as access to water — the Litani river in Lebanon — and transportation, the Hejaz railway in Jordan.
Although Weizmann found supporters in Lloyd-George and Balfour, the French were decidedly hostile. There was strong domestic opposition to Clemenceau’s decision to hand over Palestine to the British. The Quai D’Orsay was not amused. They continued to adhere to the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 in which the Middle Eastern areas of the moribund Ottoman Empire would be divided up between the British and the French at the war’s end. Promises to both Zionist Jews and Hashemite Arabs were of temporary importance to win the war.
Despite being a fluent French speaker, Weizmann told friends that in the company of the French at the conference, “we speak a different language”. The French had originally barred Ussishkin from participating but he was able to replace a delayed Zionist leader.
The French insisted on the inclusion of the non-Zionist, Sylvain Lévy, who proceeded to downgrade Zionist aspirations during the course of his address. He projected himself as a Jewish Frenchman rather than as a French Jew and asked why should the Jews seek special privileges for themselves in Palestine? He argued that Palestine could not possibly absorb millions and France as the historic protector of Christians in the Levant should be offered the Mandate for Palestine.
The Zionists were stunned at this unexpected turn of events and only when the American Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, turned to Weizmann was Lévy’s exposition rebutted. A furious Weizmann later confronted Lévy and called him a traitor.
In the midst of the rivalry with the British for the spoils of war in the Middle East, there was little love lost between the French and the Zionists. One observer reported that Clemenceau told Weizmann that “Christians cannot forgive the Jews for crucifying Christ”. To which Weizmann retorted: “Your France would refuse Christ a visa because he was ‘a political agitator’!”
Weizmann famously met Emir Feisal in 1919 and signed an amicable agreement pledging cooperation. History intervened. Faisal was ejected from Syria by the French and later installed by the British as king of Iraq. His dream of ruling a single state for the Arabs disintegrated before great power machinations. His father was driven out of Arabia and his grandson murdered in the Iraqi coup of 1958. Today Jordan remains the only bastion of Hashemite rule.
Weizmann’s long service to the Zionist cause was recognised when he became Israel’s first president in 1949.
The Zionist presence at the Paris Peace Conference was more symbolic than achieving a political breakthrough, but it did come to be seen as a watershed in Jewish history.
A JC editorial in January 1919 commented: “We hope that the peace that will be made at Paris will be a ‘Peace of Justice’ for the Jews of the world.”
It was not to be. Versailles was merely an interlude in the savagery that lasted from 1914 to 1945. The Allies may have won this war, but the Jews certainly lost it.
Jewish Chronicle 28 June 2019