Modern history



PARIS WAS SAD and beautiful as the peacemakers began to assemble from all parts of the world in January 1919. Its people were subdued and mournful but its women were still extraordinarily elegant. “Again and again,” wrote a Canadian delegate to his wife, “one meets a figure which might have stepped out of La Vie Parisienne, or Vogue in its happier moments.” Those with money could still find wonderful clothes and jewels. The restaurants, when they could get supplies, were still marvelous. In the nightclubs, couples tripped the new fox-trots and tangos. The weather was surprisingly mild. The grass was still green and a few flowers still bloomed. There had been a lot of rain and the Seine was in flood. Along the quais the crowds gathered to watch the rising waters, while buskers sang of France’s great victory over Germany and of the new world that was coming.1

Signs of the war that had just ended were everywhere: the refugees from the devastated regions in the north; the captured German cannon in the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysées; the piles of rubble and boarded-up windows where German bombs had fallen. A gaping crater marked the Tuileries rose garden. Along the Grands Boulevards the ranks of chestnuts had gaps where trees had been cut for firewood. The great windows in the cathedral of Notre-Dame were missing their stained glass, which had been stored for safety; in their place, pale yellow panes washed the interior with a tepid light. There were severe shortages of coal, milk and bread.

French society bore scars, too. While the flags of victory fluttered from the lampposts and windows, limbless men and demobilized soldiers in worn army uniforms begged for change on street corners; almost every other woman wore mourning. The left-wing press called for revolution, the right-wing for repression. Strikes and protests came one after the other. The streets that winter and spring were filled with demonstrations by men and women in the customary blue of French workers, and with counterdemonstrations by the middle classes.

Neither the British nor the Americans had wanted the Peace Conference to be in Paris. As House confided to his diary, “It will be difficult enough at best to make a just peace, and it will be almost impossible to do so while sitting in the atmosphere of a belligerent capital. It might turn out well and yet again it might be a tragedy.” The French were too excitable, had suffered too much and were too bitter against the Germans to provide the calm atmosphere needed. Wilson had preferred Geneva until alarmist reports coming from Switzerland persuaded him that the country was on the verge of revolution and riddled with German spies. Clemenceau did not waver in his insistence on Paris. “I never,” said Lloyd George later on, when he was particularly annoyed, “wanted to hold the Conference in his bloody capital. Both House and I thought it would be better to hold it in a neutral place, but the old man wept and protested so much that we gave way.”2

It may be only a legend that Clemenceau asked to be buried upright, facing Germany. It was certainly true that he had been on guard against France’s great neighbor for most of his life. He was only twenty-eight when the Franco-Prussian War started, and he was part of the group of young left-wing republicans who fought on in Paris after the French armies were defeated. He saw the city starve, the French government capitulate and the new German empire proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. As a newly elected deputy, he voted against the peace terms with Germany. As a journalist, writer, politician and finally prime minister, he sounded the same warning: Germany was a menace to France. “My life hatred,” he told an American journalist shortly before he died, “has been for Germany because of what she has done to France.” He did not actively seek war after 1871; he simply accepted it as inevitable. The problem, he said, was not with France: “Germany believes that the logic of her victory means domination, while we do not believe that the logic of our defeat is serfdom.”3

To have a chance, Clemenceau had always recognized, France needed allies. Before 1914, the new Germany had been a formidable opponent, its industry, exports and wealth all growing while France’s were static and its birthrate was declining. Today, when sheer numbers of soldiers matter less in battle, it is difficult to remember how important it was to be able to put huge armies into the field. As Clemenceau told the French senate during the ratification debate, the treaty with Germany “does not specify that the French are committed to have many children, but that would have been the first thing to include.” Those disadvantages were why France had reached out to its hereditary enemies, tsarist Russia in the east and Britain across the Channel, for Russian manpower and British industry and maritime power to balance against Germany. Much had changed by 1918, but not the underlying imbalance. There were still more Germans than French. How long would it take the German economy, with its largely intact infrastructure, to recover? And now France could not count on Russia.4

During the Peace Conference, France’s allies became exasperated with what they saw as French intransigence, French greed and French vindictiveness. They had not suffered what France had suffered. The war memorials, in every city, town and village, with their lists of names from the First World War, the handful from the Second, tell the story of France’s losses. A quarter of French men between eighteen and thirty had died in the war, over 1.3 million altogether out of a prewar population of 40 million. France lost a higher proportion of its population than any other of the belligerents. Twice as many again of its soldiers had been wounded. In the north, great stretches of land were pitted with shell holes, scarred by deep trenches, marked with row upon row of crosses. Around the fortress of Verdun, site of the worst French battle, not a living thing grew, not a bird sang. The coal mines on which the French economy depended for its power were flooded; the factories they would have supplied had been razed or carted away into Germany. Six thousand square miles of France, which before the war had produced 20 percent of its crops, 90 percent of its iron ore and 65 percent of its steel, were utterly ruined. Perhaps Wilson might have understood Clemenceau’s demands better if he had gone early on to see the damage for himself.5

At the Peace Conference, Clemenceau was to keep all the important threads in his own hands. The French delegation drew on the best that France had to offer, but it did not meet at all for the first four months of the conference. Clemenceau rarely consulted the Foreign Ministry professionals at the Quai d’Orsay, much to their annoyance. Nor did he pay much attention to the experts from the universities he had asked to draw up reports on France’s economic and territorial claims and to sit on the commissions and committees that proliferated over the course of the conference. “No organization of his ideas, no method of work,” complained clever old Paul Cambon from London, “the accumulation in himself of all duties and all responsibilities, thus nothing works. And this man of 78 years, sick, for he is a diabetic . . . receives fifty people a day and exerts himself with a thousand details which he ought to leave to his ministers. . . . At no moment in the war was I as uneasy as I am for the peace.”6

Stéphen Pichon, Clemenceau’s foreign minister, was an amiable, lazy and indecisive man who received his instructions every morning and would not have dreamed of disobeying. Clemenceau was rather fond of him in an offhand way. “Who is Pichon?” he asked one day. “Your minister of Foreign Affairs,” came the reply. “So he is,” said the old Tiger, “I had forgotten it.” On another occasion, Pichon and a party of experts were waiting patiently in the background for a meeting to start when Clemenceau teased Balfour about the number of advisers he had. When Balfour replied, “They are doing the same thing as the greater number of people with you,” Clemenceau, infuriated to be caught out, turned around. “Go away all of you,” he told Pichon. “There is no need for any of you!”7

If Clemenceau discussed issues at all, it was in the evening at his house, with a small group that included his faithful aide General Henri Mordacq, the brilliant gadfly André Tardieu and the industrialist Louis Loucheur. He kept them on their toes by having the police watch them. Each morning he would give them a dossier with details of their previous day’s activities. As much as possible he ignored Raymond Poincaré, his president, whom he loathed.8

Throughout his long life Clemenceau had gone his own formidable way. His enemies claimed that his slanting eyes and his cruelty were a legacy from Huns who had somehow made it to the Vendée. He was born in 1841, to minor gentry in a lovely part of France with a violent history. Generally, the people of the Vendée chose the wrong side: in the wars of religion, which the Catholics won, they were Protestants; during the French Revolution they were Catholic and royalist. The Clemenceau family was a minority within a minority; republican, radical and resolutely anticlerical. Clemenceau himself thought snobs were fools, but he always went back to the gloomy family manor house, with its stone floors, its moat and its austere furnishings. 9

Like his father, Clemenceau trained as a doctor; but, again like his father, he did not practice. His studies in any case always took second place to writing, politics and his love affairs. Like other bright young men, he was drawn to Paris and the world of radical intellectuals, journalists and artists. In the late 1860s he spent much time in the United States, widely admired by republicans as a land of freedom. His travels left him with fluent English, peppered with out-of-date New York slang, in an accent that mingled a Yankee drawl with rolling French “r”s. He also gained a wife, Mary Plummer, a lovely, stupid and very conventional New England girl whom he had met while he was teaching French in a girls’ school. He brought her back to France and deposited her for long periods of time with his parents and unmarried aunts in the Vendée. The marriage did not last but Mary Plummer lived on in Paris, supplementing her modest annuity by taking American tourists to museums. She rarely saw Clemenceau after their separation but she faithfully collected his press cuttings. Unfortunately, she could not read them because she had never learned French. After her death in 1917 Clemenceau expressed mild regret: “What a tragedy that she ever married me.”10

The Clemenceau family kept the three children from the marriage, and Clemenceau never married again. He preferred to travel through life alone. There were women, of course, as friends and as lovers. “Never in my life,” he said, “has it been necessary for me to make appeals to women.” And on the whole it was true. In 1919 he complained sardonically that, just when he was too old to take advantage of it, women were throwing themselves at him.11

Politics and, above all, France were his great passion. With the collapse of Napoleon III’s empire in 1870 and the rise of the Third Republic, the way was open to him and other radical politicians to participate in public life. Clemenceau was elected to the French parliament in 1876. He was a republican like most of those who dominated the Third Republic but he did not belong to a political party in the modern sense (indeed such things did not exist then). In the loose and shifting groupings before the Great War, he was invariably found on the left, just this side of the socialists and those who rejected constitutional, democratic politics. Clemenceau made a name for himself as an incisive and witty orator and a tenacious opponent, happiest when he was attacking governments he saw as too conservative. With his old friend Emile Zola, for example, he helped to reopen the guilty verdict against Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer falsely accused of selling French secrets to the Germans.12 But he was not trusted even on the left; there were too many dubious financiers in his life, women with shady reputations, creditors asking for their money. His duels left an impression of someone who belonged in the pages of Dumas. In his relentless attacks on authority he was prepared to do almost anything to win. “He comes from a family of wolves,” said a man who knew him well. Clemenceau did not help himself by his contempt for convention and his profound cynicism. Lloyd George once said of him, “He loved France but hated all Frenchmen.” In 1906, when he was already in his sixties, he became a government minister. He was brought in as minister of the interior perhaps because France’s president at the time owed him a political debt, more likely because, as one of his new colleagues argued, it would be too dangerous to leave him out. Later that year when what was a weak government fell, Clemenceau to the surprise of many emerged as the new prime minister and an effective one at that.

His intimates saw another side. Clemenceau was loyal to his friends and they to him. He was kind and generous with both time and money. He loved his garden, although, according to one visitor, “it was a helterskelter survival of mixed-up seeds hurled about recklessly in all directions.” For years Clemenceau had a country place close to Giverny and Claude Monet, a great friend. In Paris he frequently dropped in to see the great panels of the water lilies. “They take my breath away whenever I enter that room.” (He could not bear Renoir’s painting: “It’s enough to disgust you with love forever after. Those buttocks he gives those wenches ought not to be allowed.”13)

Clemenceau was also extraordinarily brave and stubborn. When the Germans advanced on Paris in 1914, the French parliament debated leaving. Clemenceau, who had resigned office in 1909 and was back to his familiar role in opposition, agreed: “Yes, we are too far from the front.” In the dark days of 1917, when the French armies had been shattered on the Western Front and there was talk of collapse at home, Clemenceau the Father of Victory, as the French called him, finally came into his own. As prime minister, he held France together until the final victory. When the Germans made their last great push toward Paris in the spring of 1918, Clemenceau made it clear that there would be no surrender. If the Germans took the city, he intended to stay until the last moment and then escape by plane. When he heard that the Germans had agreed to an armistice, for once in his life he was speechless. He put his head in his hands and wept. On the evening of November 11, he walked through Paris with his favorite sister, Sophie. “The war is won,” he said when he saw the crowds starting to pull captured German guns to pieces. “Give them to the children to play with.” Later, with Mordacq, he talked of the work to come: “Yes, we have won the war and not without difficulty; but now we are going to have to win the peace, and that will perhaps be even more difficult.”14

France, of all the Great Powers, had the most at stake in the German peace terms. Britain already had most of what it wanted, with the German fleet and the major German colonies safely in its hands, and the United States, protected from Germany by the Atlantic Ocean, was eager to pack up and go home. France not only had suffered the most; it also had the most to fear. Whatever happened, Germany would still lie along its eastern border. There would still be more Germans than French in the world. It was an ominous sign that even the souvenir penknives engraved with “Foch” and “La Victoire” being sold in France in 1919 had been made in German factories. France wanted revenge and compensation, but above all, it wanted security. No one was more aware of this than its prime minister.

Clemenceau was convinced that the only safety for France was in keeping the wartime alliance alive. As he told the Chamber of Deputies in December 1918, “To preserve this entente, I will make any sacrifice.” During the Peace Conference he held firm to that, even through the worst disagreements. The French public must remember, he told his closest advisers, that “without America and England, France would perhaps no longer actually exist.” As he remarked to Lloyd George, when the two were engaged in one of their many quarrels, “my policy at the conference, as I hope you will acknowledge, is one of close agreement with Great Britain and America.” 15

Clemenceau’s policy was one thing; persuading the rank and file of French officials to follow it was another. “I find them full of intrigue and chicanery of all kinds,” complained Hankey, the British secretary to the conference, “without any idea of playing the game.” Memories of past greatness, a conviction of the superiority of French civilization, resentment of Anglo-Saxon prosperity and fears of Germany did not make the French easy to deal with. “One could not help feeling,” wrote a British expert when he visited the French occupation forces in the Rhineland, “that in a moment all that has happened in the last fifty years was wiped away; the French soldiers were back again in the place where they used to be under the Monarchy and the Revolution; confident, debonair, quick, feeling themselves completely at home in their historical task of bringing a higher civilization to the Germans.” The Americans, like the British, found the French intensely irritating at times. “Fundamental trouble with France,” wrote an American expert in his diary, “is that as far as she was concerned the victory was wholly fictitious and she is trying to act as if it were a real one and to make herself believe that it was.” American officers clashed repeatedly with their French counterparts and the ordinary soldiers brawled in the streets and cafés.16

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that Clemenceau himself did not establish good personal relations with the leader of either country. Where Wilson and Lloyd George frequently dropped in on each other and met over small lunches or dinners during the Peace Conference, Clemenceau preferred to eat alone or with his small circle of advisers. “That has its disadvantages,” said Lloyd George. “If you meet for social purposes, you can raise a point. If you find that you are progressing satisfactorily, you can proceed, otherwise you can drop it.”17 Clemenceau had never cared for ordinary social life at the best of times. In Paris in 1919, he saved his flagging energies for the negotiations.

Clemenceau was the oldest of the three and, although he was robust for his age, the strain told. The eczema on his hands was so bad that he wore gloves to hide it. He also had trouble sleeping. He woke up very early, often at three, and read until seven, when he made himself a simple breakfast of gruel. He then worked again until his masseur and trainer arrived for his physical exercises (which usually included his favorite, fencing). He spent the morning in meetings but almost always went home for his standard lunch of boiled eggs and a glass of water, worked again all afternoon, and after an equally simple supper of milk and bread, went to bed by nine. Very occasionally, he took tea at Lloyd George’s flat in the Rue Nitot, where the cook baked his favorite, langues de chat.18

Clemenceau did not much like either Wilson or Lloyd George. “I find myself,” he said in a phrase that went round Paris, “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.” Wilson puzzled him: “I do not think he is a bad man, but I have not yet made up my mind as to how much of him is good!” He also found him priggish and arrogant. “What ignorance of Europe and how difficult all understandings were with him! He believed you could do everything by formulas and his fourteen points. God himself was content with ten commandments. Wilson modestly inflicted fourteen points on us . . . the fourteen commandments of the most empty theory!”19

Lloyd George, as far as Clemenceau was concerned, was more amusing but also more devious and untrustworthy. In the long and acrimonious negotiations over control of the Middle East, Clemenceau was driven into rages at Lloyd George’s attempts to wriggle out of their agreements. The two men shared certain traits—both had started out as radicals in politics, both were ruthlessly efficient—but there were equally significant differences. Clemenceau was an intellectual, Lloyd George was not. Clemenceau was rational, Lloyd George intuitive. Clemenceau had the tastes and values of an eighteenth-century gentleman; Lloyd George was resolutely middle-class.

Clemenceau also had problems closer to home. “There are only two perfectly useless things in the world,” he quipped. “One is an appendix and the other is Poincaré!” A small, dapper man, France’s president was fussy, legalistic, pedantic, very cautious and very Catholic. He was a republican, but a conservative one. Clemenceau came to despise him during the Dreyfus affair, when Poincaré carefully avoided taking a stand. “A lively little beast, dry, disagreeable, and not courageous,” Clemenceau told an American friend. “This prudence has preserved it up to the present day—a somewhat unpleasant animal, as you see, of which, luckily, only one specimen is known.” Clemenceau had been attacking Poincaré for years and even spread rumors about Poincaré’s wife. “You wish to sleep with Madame Poincaré?” he would shout out. “OK, my friend, it’s fixed.” During the war, Clemenceau, who like many leading French politicians had his own newspaper, criticized the president, often unfairly, for the failings of the French military. L’Homme Libre (renamed L’Homme Enchâiné after the censors got busy on its pages) carried editorial after editorial, written by Clemenceau himself, castigating the inadequate medical care for wounded soldiers and the shortages of crucial munitions. The conduct of the war was a disaster, those in charge utterly incompetent. Poincaré was outraged. “He knows very well that he is not telling the truth,” he complained, “that the constitution leaves me no rights.” 20

Poincaré returned the hatred. “Madman,” he wrote in his diary. “Old, moronic, vain man.” But on crucial issues, curiously, the two men tended to agree. Both detested and feared Germany. Poincaré had also fought against the defeatists during the darkest period of the war and had brought Clemenceau in as prime minister because he recognized his will to defeat Germany. For a brief period there had been something of a truce. “Now, Raymond old chum,” Clemenceau had said before his first cabinet meeting in November 1917, “are we going to fall in love?” Six months later, Poincaré was complaining bitterly that Clemenceau was not consulting him. After the victory the two men embraced publicly in Metz, capital of the recovered province of Lorraine, but their relations remained difficult. Poincaré was full of complaints about Clemenceau’s conduct of affairs. The armistice had come too soon: French troops should have pushed farther into Germany. France was being heavy-handed in Alsace and Lorraine. As a native of Lorraine, Poincaré still had contacts there, who warned him that many of the inhabitants were pro-German and that the French authorities were handling them tactlessly. Clemenceau was neglecting France’s financial problems. He was also making a mess of foreign policy, giving away far too much to the British and the Americans and expressing little interest in German colonies or the Middle East. Poincaré was infuriated when Clemenceau conceded that English would be an official language at the Peace Conference alongside French. And he couldn’t bear his rival’s popular adulation. “All Frenchmen believe in him like a new god,” he wrote. “And me, I am insulted in the popular press. . . . I am hardly talked about other than to be insulted.”21

To the dismay of Poincaré and the powerful colonial lobby Clemenceau cared little about acquiring Germany’s colonies, and was not much interested in the Middle East. His few brief remarks about war aims before the conference opened were deliberately vague, enough to reassure the French public but not to tie him down to any rigid set of demands. Official statements during the war had referred merely to the liberation of Belgium and the occupied French territories, freedom for oppressed peoples and, inevitably, Alsace-Lorraine. His job, as he told the Chamber of Deputies, was to make war. As for peace, he told a journalist, “Is it necessary to announce ahead of time all that one wants to do? No!” On December 29, 1918, Clemenceau was pressed by his critics in the Chamber to be more precise. He refused. “The question of the peace is an enormous one,” he said. The negotiations were going to be tricky. “I am going to have to make claims, but I will not say here what they are.” He might well have to give way on some in the greater interest of France. He asked for a vote of confidence. It went 398 to 93 in his favor. His main challenge now was his allies. 22

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!