DOUGLAS NEWTON. ‘Fine phrases … dark thoughts’. Reflections on the Centenary of ‘Peace Day’, 19 July 1 919.

Jul 19, 2019

It is one hundred years since ‘Peace Day’, Saturday 19 July 1919. On that day, celebrations were held across the British Empire to toast the great victory that had been won – supposedly crowned by the Treaty of Versailles. A hundred years later, shall we face up to some of the historic realities of the peacemaking in 1919, and of Australia’s role in the botched peace?

On ‘Peace Day’, banners and bunting fluttered in cities and towns across Australia. Decorated arches proclaimed ‘Victory’, ‘Peace’ and ‘Honour’. A thousand speeches from political personages and scores of newspaper editorials sermonized upon the sacred purposes won by the Great War. For instance, the Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial boasted that the British Empire’s victory had ‘resulted in the triumph of right and established the principle that all peoples shall be free.’

Lashings of this naïve drivel filled the pages of newspapers in July 1919. The disaster of the peacemaking at Paris was not understood. Nor was the remarkably destructive performance of Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes.

Some in London saw it at the outset. In December 1918 the cabinet minister Edwin Montagu lamented the ‘unhappy spectacle’ of the men of the imperial war cabinet, ‘the trusted of the Empire, the custodians of the future, the translators of victory’, all hatching schemes to defeat President Wilson, just in case ‘he meant what he said.’ Reactionaries – including Hughes – wanted to aggrandize the British Empire, to wriggle out of the promises made to Germany, and to get ‘a peace of the old style.’ ‘We are going into these negotiations with our mouths full of fine phrases and our brains seething with dark thoughts,’ warned Montagu.

The public promises given to the Germans on 5 November 1918, that the victors were bound by Wilson’s program, were swiftly dishonoured. Under the armistice terms, the so-called starvation blockade of Germany was extended. Hundreds of thousands of Germans died during the armistice period.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George then plunged the nation into a general election. He walked back from his public promise in his famous Caxton Hall speech of January 1918 that there would be ‘no demand for war indemnity’ from Germany. Instead, he vowed to ‘search their pockets for it.’ Hughes agitated for a giant indemnity. In vain did John Latham, an adviser to Hughes, plead that the promises to Germany should not be treated as ‘a scrap of paper’.

The new Germany, democratic and socialist-led, was punished as if it were the old Germany. The victors shunned, starved and denigrated the new Weimar Republic. No effort was made to consolidate Germany’s shift to democracy.

At Paris, the victors simply shut out the vanquished. There were no face-to-face negotiations. The German signature on the Treaty of Versailles was then extorted by force in late June, with threats to resume the invasion and maintain a total blockade – including food.

The political impact in Germany was catastrophic: democracy was linked in the German mind with national humiliation, and the accusation took wing that the Weimar politicians, the ‘November criminals’, had allowed a disarmed Germany to be exploited. Thus, the victors’ peace discredited the German democrats and gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the militarists.

And Hughes’s role at Paris? He boasted of the separate representation he won for Australia at the peace conference. But the British mandarins knew it was all ‘eyewash’ – a mere gesture. Indeed, no credible, lasting independent status for Australia was achieved at Paris. In the end, the war boosted empire loyalism in Australia, and hobbled the spirit of independent nationalism. Emblematic was the refusal of Australian conservatives to ratify the Statute of Westminster (1931). Not until after the fall of Singapore did the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act (1942) pass the parliament, and Australia gained some independence in foreign policy.

Hughes also peddled the myth that he had defied President Wilson in Paris in order to make Australia safe from Japan. Supposedly, sniffing the air and sensing the Japanese peril, he had resisted Japan keeping her captured territories in the Pacific. In fact, back in April 1916, and again in February 1917, Hughes’s government had acquiesced in British diplomatic deals giving Japan all the captured German colonies north of the equator.

Hughes famously clashed with Wilson at Paris at the Council of Ten on 30 January 1919. When Wilson asked Hughes if he was prepared to defy the civilised world on mandates, Hughes reportedly replied, ‘That’s about the size of it, Mr President.’ This retort, which is not in the minutes, still gladdens some nationalist hearts. But the incident is misunderstood. Hughes had fought for outright annexation in the Pacific – and lost. When he clashed with Wilson, he had just accepted the principle of League of Nation’s mandates. Hughes got a compromise: weak ‘C class’ mandates, masking annexation.

But these weak mandates gained greater manoeuvre for Japan north of the equator as well as for Australia south of the equator. Wilson’s original vision – international control through robust mandates, under a strong League of Nations capable of enforcing demilitarisation – would have given Australia, and the USA, greater security from Japan into the future.

Hughes’s advisers were appalled by his self-advertising stunts. Fred Eggleston denounced Hughes’s ‘swelling up with pseudo importance.’ ‘He is the leader of the most extreme chauvinist groups singing songs of hate against the Germans all day long,’ wrote Eggleston. Latham was deeply bothered by the victors’ ‘breach of faith’ with Germany. He declared Hughes’s aims and methods ‘objectionable.’ Harold Temperley, the official British historian of the peace, wrote confidentially in 1920 that ‘Mr Hughes did more harm than anyone else at the Peace conference.’

Importantly, the peacemaking at Paris was also a disaster for the West in relation to the colonial world. The peace discredited Western liberalism. ‘Self-determination’ was exposed as a sham. The world remained divided into masters and servants. Emissaries to Paris, such as Ho Chi Minh from French Indo-China, were ignored. Decolonisation was delayed for decades. Thus, the great anti-colonial nationalist movements of the twentieth century turned in many cases to international communism. The trouble heaped up for the future was incalculable.

In the end, at Paris in 1919, the dark thoughts triumphed; the fine phrases were all betrayed; and the lost opportunities were truly fateful. One hundred years after ‘Peace Day’, the contest between rational internationalists and the populist nationalist demagogues is with us still.

Douglas Newton is a retired academic and historian. The above is based on his book, British Policy and the Weimar Republic, 1918-1919 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997).

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