from 'the War Illustrated', 18th January, 1919
'Versailles—Then and Now'
by Hamilton Fyfe

Secret Diplomacy

Premiers Clemenceau, Balfour and President Wilson entering Versailles


"Those - fools over there!" the German Crown Prince is reported to call the people of Germany, when he speaks of them at his place of internment in Holland. It comes with an ill grace from him; he was one of the chief conspirators among those who made fools of them. But how true it is; how true they must feel it to be, especially when they let their minds dwell upon the change at Versailles from what happened there in 1871 to what is happening there to-day !

Many a dramatic turn of fortune sets us moralising over the instability of mankind as we read history. Kings captured, tried, and sent to the scaffold by men whom they would not have admitted to their Royal antechambers. Conquerors, like Napoleon, who .for many years imposed their will upon half the world, brought low at last and banished to some dreary spot, where they pass their time playing chess or puzzling out acrostics. Nations, like Spain or Holland, which once spoke with authority in the counsels of the Powers, reduced to feebleness or merely commercial prosperity.

I can think of nothing more dramatic in the pages of history than the contrast between the position of Germany in January, 1871, and the position of the German people at the present time.

Bismarck's Ambition

It was on January 18th of that year, alter the few months' war, that the German Empire was proclaimed in the great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Bismarck had made his dream reality ; he had worked for nine years as Minister-President of Prussia to bring about the union of all the German States. He had, in order to sweep away obstacles, deliberately made war three times—the Danish war, the war with Austria, and the war with France. He did not trouble to deny this. He admitted it, indeed, but added with satisfaction that he had in each case calculated the advantages that would ensue, and balanced them against the sacrifices which would have to be made.

That was how statesmen thought of war. Many do, still. Happily for the peoples of the world—the civilised world, at any rate —we are now beginning to see more clearly the worthlessness of the ambitions which provoke wars. We have begun to ask why countless lives should be thrown away and countless homes desolated in order that a king may become an emperor, or to win prestige for a ruling class (which Moltke confessed to be the object of the war which Prussia made on Austria in 1866), or because some ambassador's vanity is wounded, or because some Prime Minister "puts his money on the wrong horse"!

What has been the result of the gratifying of Bismarck's ambition to unite the Kingdoms, and Principalities, and Grand' Dukedoms of Germany in an Empire? It did Bismarck good, certainly; it raised him from being Chief Minister of a small State to being the most powerful man in a large one. It benefited Prussian generals and Prussian officials. But can it be said that the peoples of Germany were in any way the better for it? Was any man, woman, or child, the happier or more prosperous, even? In the little States the taxes were light, the rule of the sovereigns easy; visitors used to tell of the contentment and well-being of the populations. Did they gain any advantage whatever from all the bloodshed and the misery caused by the process of creating the German Empire?

A Fateful Proclamation

However, these are new ideas among the mass of people. They had already been entertained by poets and philosophers, but it never entered the heads of common men that the whole business of statecraft and kingship and military aggrandisement was a conspiracy against their happiness and their property and their lives.

There were men and women here and there in Germany on January 18th, 1871, who said to themselves: "What is the good of an empire to us?" But they were very few in number. AH the rest threw their caps up and shouted for Bismarck and Emperor William, the men who had been sending their sons and husbands and brothers by the thousand to their graves in France.

And there, in the Hall of Mirrors, after the Emperor had been crowned, Bismarck's proclamation was read, which made the sovereign declare his hope that God would vouchsafe to him and his successors ever to be "increasers of the German Empire, not by warlike conquests, but. with the boons and benefits of peace, for the national welfare, freedom, and civilisation."

No doubt it was Bismarck's desire that, having made three wars with advantage, his country should now remain at peace. So the burglar who has got away with a large quantity of swag yearns to settle down quietly and enjoy his ill-gotten gains, leading a law-abiding existence.

But there, in that very proclamation, was the seed of future war, the seed of the defeat and humiliation which were in store for the conquerors of 1871.

Palace of Unhappy Memories

Why did Bismarck want the German Empire to be increased? Did he not foresee that in time there were certain to arise other ambitious men who would seek to increase it by the means which he practised—not by those which in this proclamation he preached ? They did arise even before he died. They said "We must have colonies!" The old man had no sympathy with this cry. "Germany cannot colonise, and does not need to," was his answer to it. But he had set up the increasing of the Empire as an ideal.

He could not tame the appetite he had encouraged. Now the wheel is come full circle, and the work he gave his life to is blown away.

Versailles is a palace of unhappy memories.

It is, indeed, a perfect emblem of the ruling class in France which provoked the Revolution. It is cold, formal, artificial, like the bewigged and berouged monarch who squandered enormous sums on building it and laying out the park. No happy, simple lives have ever been passed within these gloomy walls—unless, indeed, some folks of mean estate have lived and been content in out-of-the-way attics. At Fontainebleau there are little rooms

where one could be intimate and comfortable. At Versailles all is vast and dreary. The associations which cling about the place give one the shivers.

Yet now I like to think of Bismarck there, browbeating the French peace envoys, cursing the long-drawn-out discussions over terms; chuckling about the French general who got drunk ; signing the peace treaty with a gold pen presented to him for the purpose. I like to think of all. this because it gives me greater faith in God's justice; because it tells me that, though wrong may endure for a while, right cometh in the end; because all that Bismarck wickedly plotted and cemented together with blood and tears has been brought to naught.

We shall rewrite history some day, and then Bismarck will be called truly one of the world's worst criminals. He did not try to conceal his criminal instincts. When Jules Favre, who was the chief French negotiator, mentioned that the population of Paris was getting a little out of hand, Bismarck said, "You should get up a riot, then, while you have an army to suppress it!" Favre looked horrified, as well he might. "That is the only way to manage the mob," Bismarck told him, as if he were speaking of traps for mice or flies.

"Take It or Leave It!"

In small matters he was humane enough. He had trains waiting to take food into Paris as soon as the settlement was made. He saw to it that the peace envoys had a meal as soon as they arrived at Versailles. He knew they must have been on short commons, so a supper of cutlets, ham, and scrambled eggs was hastily cooked for them. At first Favre refused the champagne which was offered. But later he drank some. A human and rather a pitiful touch that, I think.

Very hard the envoys fought to reduce the German conditions, as no doubt the German negotiators will fight hard to whittle down the Allies' terms during these coming weeks. Small success they had. The indemnity was reduced from 240,000,000 to 200,000,000. That was all.

At the last Bismarck's temper overcame him. The rough, bullying Junker nature burst through the coating of diplomatic politeness.

"You can take it or leave it!" he roared. "I won't discuss the matter any more. And I won't talk French any more. Next time you come, bring an interpreter!"

But the next time they came the treaty was signed. That was on February 26th. Negotiations had begun on January 23rd. I wish there were any prospect of our peace being made as quickly. It ought to have been made at Marshal Foch's Headquarters.

Now it is going to be a regular bureaucratic business, carried on by officials who never do anything quickly and by politicians who never know their own minds.

I wish there were some man with Bismarck's strong will and capability to mete out to the Germans the same measure as that which he imposed so pitilessly upon France just forty-eight years ago.


from 'The War Illustrated', 1st February, 1919
'Why They Want Secrecy'
by Hamilton Fyfe

left : the German delegation to the signing of the Versailles Treaty
right : the German delegation siging the Treaty

I wonder if the significance of the tussle over publicity at the Peace Conference has been generally understood. I am afraid we shall have many more such tussles before we get rid of secrecy in carrying on the nation's business. Tradition is hard to kill, especially when it' has a powerful vested interest working overtime to keep it alive. Yet if we do not kill the tradition of secrecy in dealing with foreign affairs we shall have fought the Great War in vain. We shall fall back into that morass of deception and rouddle- headedness in which w plunged and wallowed before.

To discover how the traditions arose we must trace diplomacy to its origin. We must go back to the time when foreign affairs were not the affairs of nations but the personal transactions of their rulers. Ambassadors were sent to foreign countries by monarchs to keep their masters informed of what went on. There were no other means of getting this information; no newspapers with correspondents in every capital, no students of contemporary politics writing articles in reviews, no cables to flash news all over the world, not even regular posts. It was the duty of ambassadors to send word not only of what would now be called public matters, but to transmit also the gossip of courts, the scandals in Royal families, the talk about possible Royal marriages. Did a monarch want a bride for his son? The ambassador had to arrange it, and sometimes to marry the lady as a proxy and convey her to her new home.

Diplomacy's "Close Corporation"

All this had to be done secretly. Ambassadors were chosen for their tact and discretion. They were the personal servants of their sovereign. The people were not told anything about alliances, or brewing troubles, until treaties had been signed or until war was declared.

When peoples began to take into their own hands the business of government, to entrust it to men whom they elected instead of leaving it to irresponsible and usually incompetent emperors and kings, they ought to have altered the machinery which had been created to suit the old system and which was out of keeping with the new. . They ought to have insisted upon the discussion of foreign affairs being as free and open as the debates upon taxation or schooling. They ought to have replaced the old diplomacy by a system suited to modern conditions.

Unfortunately, the men whom they chose to carry on the government were for a long time of the same type as those who had been employed by monarchs. Not until thirty- five years after the great Reform Act was a plain Mister made Prime Minister in this country. To this day diplomacy is considered an occupation for which the aristocracy are specially qualified. Occasionally men like Sir Robert Morier or Lord Bryce have been given the highest posts, but all who are acquainted with the insides of embassies and legations will admit that diplomacy is not a career open to talent; it is a close corporation in which those who are backed by family influence or .by wealth have the best chances.

One reason, therefore, besides tradition, for the keeping up of secrecy in foreign affairs is that governing men find it more convenient. This is why they say that publicity would cause far more trouble than it would dispel, and why they spread the notion that foreign affairs are too complicated and abstruse, for the common man or woman to grasp. This second assertion is easily disposed of. If the public in any self-governing country are told as much about foreign affairs as they are told about domestic matters they will be quite as capable of making up their minds about the one set of questions as about the other. The public do not fully grasp finance or economics, yet no one suggests that decisions in these spheres should be taken over their heads. Compared with financial and economic problems, foreign affairs are simple. Take the word of one who has spent most of his life in the study of both.

Wars Made in Secret

Coming to the contention that open diplomacy would cause quarrels among peoples to be more frequent, and not fewer as the opponents of secrecy argue, I submit that the probability is all the other way. Take the Crimean War, in which, as Lord Salisbury admitted, we backed the wrong horse, by which he meant that it was an error to take sides with Turkey against Russia. Can anyone maintain that either the French or the British people would have been in favour of fighting if they had known exactly what the quarrel was about? They would have said that the squabble over the custody of the Holy Sepulchre and the protection of pilgrims was both disgraceful and ridiculous, and that bloodshed upon such a pretext would be criminal.

Again, no one who is familiar with the events which led up to the Franco-Prussian War— for which, you must remember, the Emperor Napoleon III. was held at the time even more responsible than Bismarck—can deny that publicity would have given the French nation, at any rate, a very much clearer view of the cause of the disturbance. Thiers, the most famous Frenchman of his day, told Lord Granyille, soon after the war began in 1870, that "neither France nor Paris was in favour of war, but the Empress pressed it, and the Emperor decided it. The generals promoted it in the hope of becoming marshals, and the marshals because they desired to be dukes or princes." It was a "noisy minority" which shouted for war. In seventy-one out of eight-seven Departments, official reports showed war to be unpopular. It broke out because neither nation knew enough about the quarrel between the sovereigns.

Guilty Consciences

The reasons for desiring secrecy about the discussions at the Peace Conference are easy enough to guess. France wants to announce as a settled act the pushing back of Germany beyond the Rhine and the complete Frenchification of Alsace-Lorraine. Italy does not feel that her claims to the eastern shore of the Adriatic and her unsympathetic attitude toward the Southern Slavs Can be openly proclaimed without exciting general indignation. The Poles do not, I imagine, hanker after publicity which will show up their quarrels among themselves and, in particular, the sharp division between Polish Christians and Polish Jews, the Hebrews being as much in fear of the Christians as the Christians say they are of the Bolshevists, That clever old Serbian statesman, M. Pasitch, would rather, I am sure, work in secret, hoping to "put it across" everybody and secure Macedonia, which is as much Greek as Serbian, and no less Bulgarian than Greek.

More reasons of the same order could be set forth until they filled the page, but enough have been adduced to show that, far from being good reasons for secrecy, they are the best arguments for reporting the Peace Conference in full. The very anxiety of the Old Gang statesmen and diplomatists for secrecy proves that they have guilty consciences. They want to play the old game and lay their cards upon the table only when the rubber is ended. Then, rather than risk unsettling everything again, the nations will have to put up with what has been done.

If the peoples, are to control foreign policy they must watch every card that is about to be played; they must effectively control the men who represent them. These men resent control, and will make the strongest efforts of which they are capable to avoid it. Only the younger and more active-minded of the publicmen of any country—men like Lord Robert Cecil, Lord Henry Bentinck, and, I rather fancy, Mr. Lloyd George among us ; like M. Albert Thomas in France, and in Italy Signor Orlando—see that to stifle criticism of the acts of diplomatists now must sow the seed of future irritations, misunderstandings, and wars.

The Only Hope

The only hope for a future saner and more peaceful than the past is a settlement to which all shall subscribe, not perhaps willingly but with the feeling that, though some have had to suffer, and though many hopes have been disappointed, there has been a square deal, with nothing tricky or underhand to leave bitterness behind.

No one with a knowledge of human nature and of the method of diplomatic negotiation can expect that publicity will smooth away all disputes, or will make it impossible for one negotiator to over-reach another. However "open" the Peace Conference at Portsmouth, U.S.A., had been, the Japanese would none the less have got the better of the Russians. They succeeded in this by maintaining stiffly until the very end their demand for a large war indemnity, in addition to the other terms which they called upon Russia to accept. The Russian diplomats were doubtful about making peace on these terms. They knew their country could continue the war. They did not know that Japan had come to the end of her money. When the Japanese suddenly dropped the indemnity demand the Russians believed they had won a diplomatic victory, and agreed to the other terms at once. In reality, Japan had won.

Such victories as that will be won, however fully discussions are reported, and there is no reason why cleverness should not draw its rewards. Under an "open system," indeed, cleverness will be more necessary than it is at present. That is another, and perhaps the chief, of the Old Gang's objections to it.


right : crowds outside the Versailles palace


Back to Index