Historiography of the Peace Conference of 1919 and Surrounding Events

The events of history have been documented as an objective form of non-fiction throughout time. The way in which historians compose these events is termed historiography. Historiography in its simplest terms is a historical form of literature. A more accurate description of historiography is that it is the principles, theories, or methodology of scholarly historical research and presentation. It is also the writing of history based on a critical analysis, evaluation, and selection of authentic source materials, as well as composition of these materials into a narrative subject. It is the study of how historians interpret the past. Historiography is a debate and argument about previous and current representations of the past. Historiography is present in all historical works big and small. The notorious Peace Conference of 1919 has received its fair share of historiography. There are many viewpoints and interpretations of the ins and outs of the peace conference by vast numbers of historians; the historical works that will be focused on in this composition are The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918-1933 by Sally Marks, The Peace Conference of 1919 by F.S. Marston, Great Britain, France, and the German Problem 1918-1939 by W.M. Jordan, and Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

The extent as to which the conference was discussed varies by historian. Sally Marks’ The Illusion of Peace, is broken down into six chapters that focus primarily on peace. These chapters are titled The Pursuit of Peace, The Effort to Enforce the Peace, The Revision of the Peace, The Years of Illusion, The Crumbling of Illusion, and The End of All Illusion. For the sake of this composition we will focus on chapter 1, The Pursuit of Peace, which deals primarily with the Peace Conference. Marks begins The Illusion of Peace by stating that “major wars often provide the punctuation marks of history, primarily because they force drastic realignments in the relationships among states.” F.S. Marston chose to take a slightly different route in recording the occurrences of the Peace Conference in his The Peace Conference of 1919. Marston’s main focus was not on the concept of peace itself but the actual procedure of the Peace Conference. In the preface of The Peace Conference of 1919, he states that his purpose for writing the book was because “there was an obvious need for an objective analysis of the organization of the Conference.” Marston breaks The Peace Conference of 1919 into eighteen chapters. These chaoters go into great detail about the characteristics of the conference. The book begins with “The Paris Peace Conference was a unique gathering of the nations. We are still perhaps too near it and too deeply involved in its consequences to make a final appraisal of its work.”

Another perspective to be discussed is that of W. M. Jordan in Great Britain, France, and the German Problem 1918-1939, which is divided into seventeen chapters. These chapters discuss everything from the concepts of peace of 1914-1918 to the European framework of territorial settlement. Professor C. K. Webster states in the foreword of Great Britain, France, and the German Problem that “this study makes painful but salutary reading. It faces relentlessly certain facts which have produced the world in which we live now. It is objective, and the author has taken the greatest care to be as fair to France as to Britain.” The last perspective to be discussed is that of Margaret MacMillan, who, by far, presents the most information on the Peace Conference out of the previous listed historians. Her Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, has eight parts and thirty chapters. In the foreword written by Richard Holbrooke, it is stated that MacMillan’s account of the seminal event in Paris 1919 contains several success stories, but is measured against the judgment of history and consequences.

Marks begins, early on in the Illusion of Peace, discussing the sudden collapse of Germany and the surprise it caused to the victors. The defeat of Germany was so prevalent in the minds of the Allies that they failed to consider planning the peace that follows after war. Marks stressed that what little peace planning that was in progress was not even close to being considered effective. She states that out of all of the major Allies, the French were the closest to being the best prepared for matters of peace. She gave the reasoning behind this to be that the French had a predetermined notion of what mattered to them and were less than interested in what occurred on a global scale. Marks writes that the American standpoint on peace was obscured by President Woodrow Wilson’s highly ambiguous Fourteen Points, which are ideally good points, but from a realistic standpoint face a difficult time being implemented because of their complexities.

As for the location of the Peace Conference, Marks writes that Paris was not the ideal place for such a conference. Paris was considered a poor location because “wartime passion [ran] higher there than any other location” and the capital was in no condition, after four years of war, to provide lodging and other important amenities to the leaders. In the first chapter, Marks, uses Erich Eyck’s A History of the Weimar Republic to support information on the relationship between the Allies and Germany. She also discusses the fatal influenza that was sweeping across Europe and the rest of the world. During this discussion, Marks writes that Germany was fortunate in that its people were not starving like the rest of the war torn countries. As for the actual conference, Marks writes that “When the conference finally got down to business, it functioned very haphazardly. Much of the work was done by committees.” She elaborates on this statement by stating that several things played a major part in the haphazardness of the decisions made. Some of these things included influence and idiosyncrasy, and personality and prejudice. When dealing with the League of Nations, Marks writes that provided the circumstances of such damaging characteristics the League was set up to fail and the creation of such a thing presented a misleading illusion of peace that was impossible to achieve.

In Marks’ recordings of the Treaty of Versailles, she explains that the treaty has been criticized a great deal throughout history and deserves to be because of its numerous inadequacies and lack of attention to “economic realities.” Marks writes that despite the criticisms for the economic aspects of the treaty, great care had been taken in the preservation of economic units by the Allied leaders. She presents several different views of certain events in order to provide the reader with as much objectivity as is possible. She explains that despite what has been recorded or despite popular belief, there is always room for argument as to what was and was not effective during the Peace Conference of 1919. The last pages of The Illusion of Peace are dedicated to a chronological table of the events that took place before, during, and after the Peace Conference. There is an extensive bibliography that includes documents and official publications, such as the official journal of the League of Nations, and diaries, letters, and memoirs, such as David Lloyd George’s Memoirs of the Peace Conference. An extensive number of secondary sources were used in addition to several periodicals as well. The last component of The Illusion of Peace is Marks’ notes and references. All in all, this account of the Peace Conference of 1919 was presented in an unbiased and informative manner.

F. S. Marston took on the role of composing a historical rendition of the organization and procedure of the conference in The Peace Conference of 1919. Marston’s position on the organization of the conference is as follows: “The following pages will show the extent to which the throwing away of the fruits of victory twenty-five years ago was due to premature relaxation of effort and failure to make immediate use of the organization that had been so laboriously developed.” One of the first things included in The Peace Conference of 1919 was a chart depicting the general organization of the conference. The Council of Ten is the center of this chart, which branches out into the sub-councils, which in turn branch out into smaller more centralized committees. Marston describes the conference in relation to earlier conferences and events. According to Marston, the most critical development that occurred in the year 1917, just two years before the Peace Conference, the Supreme War Council was formally established. Marston includes references from General Bliss to reiterate a fact about the war council and its roles. The primary function of the council was to monitor the conduct of the war, but it also acted as a political body.

After discussing the Supreme War Council, Marston proceeds into discussing the Armistices in chapter two. Within the first paragraph, Marston writes that “The main background to the peace negotiations of 1919 was foreshadowed by the German Note of 4th October asking President Wilson to take the necessary steps to secure a suspension of hostilities.” The bulk of Marston’s information is based on times, dates, and locations. Chapter two does not focus so much on who did what, but rather when the event took place and for how long did the event last. Marston jumps from the Armistice to the Conference in chapter three and in chapter four. He begins chapter three by discussing the importance of the time interval between the Armistice and the Peace Conference. “It was a time of intense diplomatic activity, but of very little tangible progress, preparation for the Conference being combined with complete uncertainty as to the exact point at which it was to take charge of the negotiations” writes Marston.

In the remaining chapters Marston continues to explain and present the organizational characteristics of the Conference in great detail. The very last chapter is titled Retrospect and includes Marston’s view on how the Peace Conference of 1919 has affected the world and how it will continue to leave its mark. He writes “The Peace Conference of 1919 must certainly occupy an important place in the long succession of similar gatherings, if only because of the scale on which it was organized.” Immediately following the Retrospect, is the Chronology. Marston’s bibliography includes documents, diaries and letters, and general works, followed by his many references. He presents the information about the Peace Conference critically at times, believing that the conference was inadequate in performing the duties it was set to perform.

The perspective of W. M. Jordan, in Great Britain, France, and the German Problem 1918-1939, is one that focuses on disarmament, reparation, and security during the events surrounding the Peace Conference and the events of the Peace Conference. Jordan admits to omitting information that strictly “belongs to the history of this central problem.” As with the historical works discussed previously, Jordan begins chapter one, titled Concepts of Peace: 1914-1918, discussing the events that led up to the Peace Conference of 1919. He focuses on the breakdown of the Versailles settlement among other things. Jordan quotes several key people in the events of 1914-1918. One such person, was an American writer or European origin. This writer, according to Jordan, stressed the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was held at esteem by the British because of his principles of idealism. Jordan discussed that “the idealism which inspired the Allied cause in the Great War of 1914-1918 was, in the first instance, the achievement of British Liberalism.” This war was inadvertently a war for democracy. Jordan presented the idea that it is important to understand that the war was not directed at the German people, rather at the Prussian military caste that was controlling them. Jordan also presents two more reasons for the war: the war was meant to liberate nations and become a war to end war. Jordan includes excerpts from Lloyd George’s speeches to convey this message. He focuses a great deal on President Woodrow Wilson’s role in the quest for peace. When discussing the Fourteen Points, Jordan admits that they are too well known to need to be quoted.

In chapter two of Great Britain, France, and the German Problem, Jordan discusses the fact that “historians have paid little attention to the preparation of the document signed on 11th November 1918, which set out the military and naval terms with which Germany was required to comply as a condition of the suspension of warfare.” The purpose of this chapter was to study the political implications of the Armistice. This document started the ball rolling on the Peace Conference. The major players in the composition of the Armistice were Haig, Foch, and Bliss. Jordan discusses that the study of the conflicting views of the three men reveals that the problems with the armistice’s military terms were not of a military order, but of a political order. During this discussion, Jordan presents the reader with several questions of the actions of the three men. It is also, in chapter two in which Jordan opposes the notion that the armistice was drafted mostly from President Wilson’s policy. He states, “The claim is hardly well founded.”

The subsequent chapters of Jordan’s Great Britain, France, and the German Problem, discuss the actual Peace Conference and the results of the conference. Chapter 3 is titled The Conference and the Treaty. In the opening paragraph, Jordan gives a description of what to expect from the chapter. According to Jordan, the Peace Conference’s course of negotiations in relation to the main aspects of the settlement between Europe and Germany is “given separate consideration” in the concluding chapters. Jordan believes that the chronological order of the Conference’s sequence of events is broken up by such an arrangement. He writes, “It may be desirable to preface this chapter by a short composite account of the negotiations in 1919.” Jordan also records the illnesses of the conference’s key players in chapter three. He describes how President Wilson falling ill played a part in changing the speed of the conference. Lloyd George began to lose hope for a quick resolution after Wilson became ill and was not able to participate in the Council of Four.

Jordan goes to great lengths to remain objective in his descriptions of the personal characters of the leaders. He uses a great amount of quoted material from Lloyd George, President Wilson, and Clemenceau. There is a rather lengthy excerpt from a speech given by Clemenceau on December 29, 1918. This speech was Clemenceau’s response to a challenge by Albert Thomas on the eve of the Conference. Jordan is full of questions about the events of the Conference; on every page there is a question or some form of insight presented to be pondered upon by the reader. Jordan presents the perspective of several different countries during the Conference. He discusses the plight that France faced as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Jordan writes, “France is now left to bear alone the brunt of German resentment. She must insist on the payment or reparation; she must protect the new settlement against disturbance by Germany.” Jordan explains that Great Britain’s opinion of the Treaty of Versailles was condemning and spawned many debates. In describing the views of the Treaty, Jordan presents the idea that worrying over the criticism the Treaty of Versailles was receiving, necessitated too much digression and is unessential. He focuses on the misjudgment of the purpose of the Treaty. He writes, “That the Treaty had been conceived in the wrong spirit-this was the more general and the more trenchant charge.” In discussing the Treaty, Jordan includes his evaluations of many historical works, one of which was Economic Consequences of the Peace by J. M. Keynes. He focuses his attention on two passages of which he claims come to the conclusion that the Treaty was “incompatible with the economic prosperity of Europe.” Jordan stresses the idea that Mr. Keynes’ economic criticisms were embedded in political philosophy. Jordan provides a historical work of the Peace Conference of 1919 that transcends the times in which it was written. He is bold in his statements, forthcoming with his questions, and fair as one can be in discussing the leaders themselves.

One of the most recent historical renditions of the Peace Conference of 1919 is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, which was published in 2001. MacMillan provides a well balanced look at the events in Paris in 1919. She is able to work past the easily taken road of blaming the many ills the world has experienced since this time on the Peace Conference. MacMillan also readily admits that many mistakes were made by the peacemakers. Some of these mistakes could have been easily avoided. Macmillan does an excellent job in taking into consideration the many factors that made many of the decisions made during the Conference seem more reasonable. She addresses countless issues involved in the meetings and committees of the Versailles conference, as well as the politics involved amongst the victorious allies. She addresses the fact that the Conference is most remembered for the production of the Treaty of Versailles; however, she writes, “but it was always about much more than that. The other enemies had to have their treaties.” MacMillan seems biased and apologetic. She attempts to win over readers by using an unorthodox approach which is oblivious to the balance of historical facts. For example, MacMillan explains that Keynes was “A very clever, rather ugly young man.” Keynes physical attraction seems irrelevant to the events surrounding the Treaty of Versailles, but MacMillan finds it important to make such a statement in describing his entire character. She also makes it a point to bring up the idea that the “Big Three” leaders were from democratic governments.

The format of Paris 1919 is interesting because each chapter focuses on a specific area of the conference. As a reference it is helpful, because each country is focused on in its own chapter. The negative side to this format is that it eliminates the chronological flow of the conference; therefore, making it difficult for the reader to follow the order of event occurrences. The cultural differences among the French, English, American and Italian as well as the German, Japanese, Chinese, Greek and others was outlined rather thoroughly by MacMillan. This book goes section by section through the world and talks about the effects of peace on the east, Middle East, Africa, and Europe. It redraws the borders, shows the alienation of Italy as well as the harshness of German reparations. The failure of the League of Nations is coached in this treaty and these six months were a catastrophe for the world. She also outlines the evolution of America into a world power. MacMillan addresses the contrast among President Woodrow and his European counterparts. Wilson was adamant about international morality; whereas, his counterparts focused on national gains as a result of the war. “Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles,” MacMillan writes in her concluding chapter. Even if Germany had retained everything that was taken from it at Versailles, he would have wanted more: “the destruction of Poland, control of Czechoslovakia, above all the conquest of the Soviet Union” as well of course as the annihilation of the Jews.”

In the introduction of Paris 1919, MacMillan writes “We know something of what it is to live at the end of a great war. When the Cold War ended in 1989 and Soviet Marxism vanished into the dustbin of history, older forces, religion, and nationalism, came out of their deep freeze.” She believes that it is a valid argument that resurgent Islam is our current menace; whereas, in 1919, the menace was Russian Bolshevism. Chapter one is dedicated to discussing Woodrow Wilson and his trip to Europe; a trip that is in itself one for the history books. This is so because never before had a United States President ever traveled to Europe while in office. MacMillan focuses on Wilson’s biographical information; discussing when and where he was born and the way of life during this time. She also discusses in great detail, Wilson’s struggle with depression and illness. This discussion can lead one to doubt Wilson’s credibility and ability to make proper judgments during the Peace Conference, because of his weakened mental state. MacMillan goes so far as to discuss President Wilson’s relationships with women and the gossip surrounding such relationships. She writes, “During his first marriage he had close, possibly even romantic, friendships with several women.”

Chapter four is dedicated to one of Wilson’s counterparts, Lloyd George. This chapter begins almost like a fictional novel. MacMillan writes, “On January 11, David Lloyd George bounded with his usual energy onto a British destroyer for the Channel crossing.” This is a rather playful description of the British leader. It seems a bit out of place in a historical rendition of a vastly serious world event. MacMillan goes into great detail about his character and physical appearance as well. MacMillan seems to place great emphasis on building up the British leader. Her objectivity can be questioned because of her familial connection to Lloyd George; she is his granddaughter, a fact that she fails to acknowledge in Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Armed with this information, it is hard for the reader not to see the pedestal Lloyd George is placed upon by MacMillan.

MacMillan’s chapter five moves beyond the descriptions of the leaders and moves into their unity as the “League of the People.” It is in this chapter in which MacMillan deals with the composition of the Supreme Council. In addition to discussing the Council, MacMillan deems it important to provide the reader with descriptions of meeting places and how they appear present day. She writes, “The great staterooms at the Quai d’Orsay have survived the passage of time and a later German occupation surprisingly well.” She goes so far as to even describe the furnishings and color scheme of the room. MacMillan provides a great deal of information on the meeting held in places such as this. She writes that the Supreme Council met at least once a day, sometimes two or three times. These events led to the creation of The League of Nations, which MacMillan writes, “Only a handful of eccentric historians still bother to study the League of Nations.”

MacMillan recorded a thorough rendition of the Peace Conference of 1919 in Paris 1919. She left no area of interest untouched. Her four hundred ninety-four page work is broken into eight lengthy units which include thirty chapters total. She includes maps of Europe in 1914, Germany and Europe in 1920, East Central Europe in 1919, The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, The Middle East from the Treaty of Sevres to the Treaty of Lausanne, China and the Pacific 1914-1919, and Africa in 1919. She also includes many different photographs taken during the Peace Conference and its surrounding events. She addresses issues in many different countries; such as, China, Poland, Palestine, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia to name a few. MacMillan’s appendix is composed of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and nothing else. She has a very extensive bibliography and an extensive note section. MacMillan’s evaluations of the many different works lead to a rather interesting historical rendition of a complicated and controversial period in history.

There is little doubt that the events, and the outcome, of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 played a major role in changing the world. Every historian discussed in this paper believed this to be so. Their views on certain aspects of the Conference, and how significant certain aspects were, may vary. All works are presented, in their forewords, as objective historical works that are composed of by extensive evaluations of other historical works and documents. The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918-1933 by Sally Marks, The Peace Conference of 1919 by F.S. Marston, Great Britain, France, and the German Problem 1918-1939 by W.M. Jordan, and Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan have provided readers with different views of the Conference. The way in which these historians composed their views of the Conference is termed historiography, which can described as, simply, a historical form of literature. A more accurate description of historiography is that it is the principles, theories, or methodology of scholarly historical research and presentation. Marks, Marston, Jordan, and MacMillan combined all of these aspects to carry on the legacy of Peace Conference of 1919 and the end of the First World War.


Jordan. W.M. Great Britain, France, and the German Problem 1918-1939. Surrey, England: Gresham Press, 1971.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Marks, Sally. The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918-1933. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.

Marston, F.S. The Peace Conference of 1919. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1944.

The National Centre for History Education. “What is Historiography-and why is it Important?” Available from http://www.hyperhistory.org/index.php?option=displaypage&Itemid=735&op=page. Internet; accessed 23 April 2008.