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The Paris Peace Conference carries with it a much-maligned reputation. It is seen as one of the greatest diplomatic blunders in history. Even the delegates, as they walked out, prophesied another war within 25 years.1 The US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, said of the principle of self-determination, “the phrase ‘self-determination’ is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized…what a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”

At the end of World War I, anxious of the vengeance their European neighbors would want to wreak on them, Germany and the other Central Powers signed the Armistice, in effect surrendering to Wilson’s peace offer. Self – determination, as proposed by Wilson, seemed a much better alternative to complete dismemberment of their empires. What emerged at the Paris Peace Conference (12th January, 1919 –20th January, 1920) however, was the often argued point that self – determination did not apply to the losing nations. This essay examines the effects of this principle upon two of the victorious nations, Italy and Czechoslovakia, and argues that even for those nations, which had fought along with the Triple Entente, had most of their claims settled outside the principle of self – determination. The very principle that had attracted the Germans to seek an armistice had turned into nothing but a lofty American idea that faltered on the realpolitik of the European powers. Italy claimed and received southern Tyrol, a predominantly German-speaking region, among other acquisitions, such as Trentino, the Dodecanese, and Venezia, which were more justifiable by the principle. On the other hand, it was the islands of Dalmatia, which had a strong Italian culture. Czechoslovakia succeeded in their most outrageous claims upon Bohemia and Tesin. Bohemia contained a large German minority, almost 40% of the total population of the new Czechoslovak state, and Tesin was predominantly Polish. Both nations had earned their place at the Conference in very different ways, contributing to the war effort according to their own ability. Yet even their level of participation in the war did not seem to play much of a role in the deliberations of the Council of Four. The delegates seemed to be torn between exalting the toughest punishment they could on Germany and uniformly applying the principles they had proclaimed. 2

This analysis will focus on the role Italy and Czechoslovakia played during the war and the claims they made at the Paris Peace Conference. Attention is paid to the personal leverage of the delegates with each other, and their arguments in favor of their claims. A brief mention is made of the trends prevalent in each country just before the war to help achieve at a better understanding of the claims of the Italian and Czechoslovakian delegations. The results of these claims are then evaluated on the grounds of the larger framework of Europe and European stability as conceived by the Big Three to better understand the reasons behind the decisions taken.

Italy and Czechoslovakia in World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, Czechoslovakia did not even exist and Italy was one of the greater powers of Europe behind Germany, England, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. The Italians were therefore able to participate in the war in a much fuller manner than the Czechs and Slovaks. The Italian campaigns were not necessarily very successful. In fact, the Italians actually did not fare well almost the entire duration of the war. They did however hold up valuable battalions from joining the western front, battalions that may have changed the course of the war. The Czechs on the other hand have a more dubious record in the war. Although the Czechs who did fight with the Allies fought well, there were many Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian army who fought against the Allies. In this light, it is important to look more carefully at the activities of both nations closely.

Although the Italian government had declared its intentions to be neutral at the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, by the end of the Great War, Italy wound up on the winning side, having declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 24th, 1915 and on Germany on August 23rd, 1916. The state of the Italian Army at the outbreak of war was abysmal. In 1912, the Italian Army numbered 300,000 men, but only 25% of the men received adequate military training. Furthermore, there was a critical shortage of experienced NCOs and trained officers.

At a secret meeting held in England on 26th April 1915, representatives of the Italian government agreed to enter the war in return for financial help and the granting of extensive territorial concessions in Trent, Southern Tyrol, Istria, Gorizia and Dalmatia, all then under the control of Austria-Hungary. For an immediate loan of £50 million and a promise by France, Britain, and Russia to support Italian territorial demands after the war, Italy entered the war on the Allied side (Treaty of London, 1915). The Italians realized that Austria-Hungary would never be able to match those offers as she would not be willing to give up her own territory on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea for the sake of Italian security (and perhaps imperial) concerns. Furthermore, the Italians had no interest in colonies in Africa (they might have received had they joined the Central Powers and the Central Powers won) as compensation. In this respect, the Allies would be the only ones who would be able to meet Italian territorial ambitions.

By the spring of 1915, the Italians had 25 infantry and 4 cavalry divisions. Grouped into four armies, they had only 120 heavy or medium artillery pieces and some 700 machine guns. Despite the shortage of artillery and other military supplies, Italy launched mass attacks on Austria-Hungary in May 1915. Except for a partial success at Gorizia in August 1916 and victory over demoralized Austro-Hungarian troops in October 1918 at the Piave River, the Italian war campaign was lacklustre. By the end of hostilities, Italy had lost 650,000 men in action, nearly a million men were wounded, and another 600,000 men were captured or missing in action. In all, out of the five and half million men Italy had mobilized for the war, more than two million men had fallen.

Military casualties were the least of Italy’s concerns at the end of World War I. Italy had emerged as one of the victors after four long, hard, and grueling years. With the capture of the irredentist regions and the destruction of the Austrian armies, new duties and burdens descended on Italy. She found herself facing problems that had come so suddenly and so unexpectedly that no time had been given to prepare for meeting them efficiently. Not only had the overrun Venetian provinces been retaken, not only had hundreds of thousands of prisoners come into the Italians’ hands, but Trent and Trieste, Istria and the Dalmatian port-towns, and thousands of square miles of Austrian territory had been captured, and their population, mounting up into the millions, had come under Italy’s dominion and protection.

On the other hand, Italy’s difficulties were not greatly diminished. France, an old traditional enemy with regard to the papacy, had been fought for by Italy, but had come out of the war with no love for her – indeed, with her antagonistic feeling rather heightened. Wherever Italian and French troops were thrown together, there was liable to be a clash.

Internally Italy’s difficulties were hardly less. She was overburdened with debt, and now with the disappearance of the Austrian menace on her borders, all of the internal problems that had confronted her in the past and had been laid to rest during the war arose again to trouble her. Among the difficulties that Italy found herself confronting when the active period of the war closed were both economical and political problems of far-reaching import. She had no coal, little grain, and little of other articles of prime necessity. She had to repatriate her prisoners. She had to face the problem of demobilization and the incidental problem of giving her demobilized soldiers occupation and bread. She had to reconvert her munitions factories into factories for articles of peace. She had to organize, administer, and support the newly redeemed regions, and rebuild and administer the overrun provinces. And she had to secure, organize and administer the regions beyond the Adriatic, which she claimed under the Pact of London and the Armistice – regions where, mainly, her right was seriously questioned. Further, she had to revert from a condition of war, where the Government ruled with recognized war powers, to a condition of peace, in which the war powers having ceased, people would expect to reap the fruit of their sacrifices and would look for the resumption of their liberty in every form. This included abolition of the censorship and freedom of the press, of speech, and of public meetings, etc., which meant the recrudescence of opposition in every form to the government. And all this was in the winter – with the scantiest supplies of food and coal.

Italy’s war effort had brought it to the brink of collapse. Irrespective of whether the Italians fought well, they fought to the fullest of their economic and military potential. Losses were high on both the economic as well as the human front. The treasury was almost empty, and the Italians expected to alleviate some of their problems through national pride by the acquisition of long disputed territories.

The situation surrounding the Czech case was very different. Czechoslovakia was virtually recognized as one of the successors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire even before the armistice. Although Czechoslovakia didn’t exist during World War I as an official state, representatives of the future Czechoslovak nation gathered in France during the war and formed a national organization (Czechoslovak National Council) aimed at directing their people in Austria-Hungary and the prisoners taken by the Allies into armies and resistance movements against the Central Powers.3 Czech exiles like Thomas Masaryk, Edvard Beneš, and Milan Ratislav Stefanik had been working in the West as far back as 1914 to convince the Allies that Czechoslovakia was a supporter of the Allied cause.4 In 1916, they released a pamphlet stating the Czechoslovak aims in the war. France was the first to recognize the new nation, followed by Britain and finally the United States after the Czechoslovak Convention in Pittsburgh on June 30th, 1918. Immediately after the armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918, the Czechoslovakian people declared their republic, raised an official army, and militarily occupied the areas they laid claim to.

It is clear that the Czechoslovakians entered the Conference on grounds less firm than Italy to be considered an ally. In The Deliberations of the Council of Four, Lloyd George seeks clarification from the others (Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson) as to who may be considered as allies and who the enemy.5 Lloyd George also questioned the effectiveness of the Czech forces in actual battle, as many fought against the Allies in the Austro-Hungarian army.

The story of the formation of the Czech forces is a long and convoluted one. Many mistake pan-Slavism to be a concept born in 1914. The Slavs, Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Magyars, and the Austrians had between them a long history of wars and massacres. The Austrians and the Magyars annexed the Czecho-Slovak state of Great Moravia in the tenth century, and Austria came into control of the Czechs in the sixteenth century when they acquired the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary. The Magyars and the Austrians succeeded in driving Slavic culture into the background, and despite revolutions like in 1848, managed to maintain a firm grip on their conquered subjects.

The first Czech brigade was formed in the autumn of 1914 in Russia by the Russians of Czech origin living in Moscow. Their numbers were further supplemented by volunteer prisoners of war. Entire regiments deserted, the most famous case being at Dukla on April 3rd, 1915. The Austro-Hungarian army itself faced many mutinies, and many Czechs refused to march against the Serbs. Czech and Slovak forces in France were joined by Americans of Czech and Slovak origins – after the official entry of the United States into the war, about 40,000 Americans of Czech and Slovak origin joined the American army. There were however, many Czechoslovaks who did not desert the Austro-Hungarian army. The impression given by Beneš and Masaryk at the Peace Conference that an overwhelming majority of Czechs worked against the Austro-Hungarians at all levels, from civic administration through war production to actual battle, is false. Although it is difficult to find exact statistics of casualties of Czechs and Slovaks who died fighting for the Allies, it can easily be concluded that their input was nowhere near that of the Italians, given that Italy had the resources of an entire nation to throw into the war effort.

The issue of the Czechoslovakian National Council being a true representative of all peoples in Bohemia is also an important one. The absence of any minority delegates in the Council should have cast doubts on the representative nature of this assembly. Furthermore, the Czechs that the Czechoslovakian National Council was chosen from consisted mostly of emigrated or exiled men. This created a stronger policy towards a total separation from Austria than the whole population would have supported. A striking example that not all Czechs supported a total separation from the empire was given by the Czech parliamentary representatives of Bohemia, who petitioned the Emperor of Austria on January 24, 1917 for an audience to express their loyalties to the emperor and “paralyze certain unscrupulous slogans … which could compromise the idea of the Austrian state.”6

The Czechoslovakian National Council returned from exile on October 28, 1918 and took charge of the affairs for the Czech and Slovak areas of Bohemia and Moravia. Once order was restored in those historical areas of the future Slavonic nation, the Czechoslovakian government began to bring the German speaking territories under their control, occupying them village-by-village. By December 12, 1918, Reichenberg, the capital of German Bohemia was occupied. Witin a few days thereafter, Czech forces occupied every German-speaking city in Bohemia.

These actions gave Czechoslovakia a very strong position to begin negotiations at the Peace Conference. Czechoslovakia was considered an allied nation even though the military action on which this status was based lasted only a very short time. This however, would prove a most valuable political asset. Secondly, the Allied powers had already indirectly acknowledged the creation of Czechoslovakia in the historical boundaries of Bohemia and its “historic right” to those territories in general. While all these arrangements were pending on the outcome of the Peace Conference, they certainly created a status quo that would be very hard to change. Finally, the military and political authority the Czechs exerted in the Sudetenland added to the Czech claim to those areas. It certainly would have created political turmoil had the allies attempted to expel the Czech soldiers from the Sudetenland.

The Czech position at the beginning of the talks was thus arrived at more by Allied countenance than by actual military effort. Due to having fought on both sides, the Czech military contribution is seriously questionable. The Czechs had to be equipped by the Allies and did not have their own resources. The only resource the Czechs provided was manpower, and in a war that claimed over 35 million lives, the addition of not more than another 60,000 men to the front seems inconsequential. The Italians on the other hand, not only lost more men, but also deployed economically and brought new resources online for the war effort. They were not dependent on British and French supplies, nor were they fighting on both sides. Their traditional hatred of their Austro-Hungarian neighbors made them dependent allies on the southern front, and their navy, though not serious, was able to worry the Austro-Hungarians into not taking on any brave adventures.

Interests and Claims

Italy and Czechoslovakia entered the war not to fight for the weak against the strong, or to curb aggressive empire building, but in their own interests. In a fashion, they themselves could be considered greedy for territory. The claims both nations made did not conflict in terms of territory with each other, but were treated differently by the Big Three. Czechoslovakia had the advantage that it was primarily in the German sphere of influence and therefore closer to British and French interests. Hypocritically, on the other hand, the Italians were viewed as empire builders themselves. This, along with other issues, led to a very different experience at the Paris Peace Conference for Italy from that of Czechoslovakia.

The Italians felt sure at the end of the war that they would at last achieve what they had wanted for decades if not centuries. The additional territories that were supposed to have been brought into the empire would satiate their need for security on their eastern borders from Austria-Hungary. However, the Peace Talks did not turn out to the satisfaction of the Italian delegation. At one time, the delegation even threatened to walk out of the talks if their demands (which had already been promised to them) were not met.

The Italian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference was mainly represented by Vittorio Orlando and Baron Sidney Sonnino. Lloyd George reflected in his memoirs, “The two Italian delegates were each in his way exceptionally able men, but they were not a good team. […] Orlando was too emotional […] Sonnino was too sulky and too rigid. […] Mutual understanding between the Allied representatives ultimately ripened into goodwill, and goodwill into friendship. The only exception was in the case of Italy.”7

He also stated that Wilson did not like the Italian delegation. In fact, Wilson thought that the Italian aspirations did not fit within the framework of what the Peace Conference was about – “[…] no heroism on the part of the Italian soldiers could alter the fact that Italian statesmen made war not to vindicate international right or to protect the weaker nations of Europe from the arrogance and rapacity of great military empires, but on a bargain which ensured material advantages for their own country.”8

Another thing the Allies took exception to was the claim Italy made over Turkish lands. The Italians had refused to send troops to fight in the Turkish campaign, and could barely hold their own front. From the Allied perspective, the Italians would have been the victims of their former friends’ territorial aims had they not received help from French and British troops.9 In the strictest sense, the British and French did not see Italy as having pulled its own weight in the war, and thus not followed the spirit of the Treaty of London.10 On the other hand, the Italians felt that they fought almost entirely on their own, and regarded the Allies with suspicion as to their motives. Italian suspicions were further strengthened when the Allies started recognizing the new states being formed out of Austria-Hungary (even before the war had ended) as friendly at the expense of Italian ambitions.11 Italian expectations were further disappointed when the other Allies fostered a solution with Germany before addressing the Italian issues. Italy’s sphere of interest lay in the Balkans while France, Britain, and the United States focused on Germany.

Thus even though the Italians did more than the Czechoslovakians in absolute terms, it is conceivable that the Allies didn’t see it that way. Personal dislike aside, the Allies even questioned the Italian war effort, though not openly to their face.

The Italian claims (mentioned earlier) were neither outrageous nor reasonable for a nation pursuing realpolitik. In the sudden change of perspective from realpolitik to idealism, they may however, seem rather greedy. It is true, as Wilson points out repeatedly during the meeting of the Council of Four meetings, that the Italian territorial aims did not fit within the idealistic aims of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.12 Also, the Allies questioned Italy’s apparent claim that it needed a foothold on the eastern coast of the Adriatic as a security buffer against the Austro-Hungarians since the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy’s main nemesis for centuries, had dissolved.13 The Allies, particularly the British and the French, also did not feel that the Italians had any right to demand a mandate over the Turkish spoils of war as they had refused outright to help the British and French soldiers involved in that campaign. However, as Baron Sonnino pointed out in the case of Fiume and Dalmatia, the right to self-determination was long lost when the Allies accepted the Italian claims over predominantly German southern Tyrol.14 From the Italian perspective, the Treaty of London in 1915 guaranteed Italian rights over the territories and it could not be nullified simply because the United States was not a part of it. As a strategy, the Italians therefore held meetings privately with the British and the French through back channels and messages, trying to divide the European powers from the United States. This further infuriated Wilson, who was desperately trying to present a united front to the Germans. Eventually, the Italian ruse did not succeed in anything but earning a more contemptuous view of the Italians.

The Italians also felt that they had fought the war alone, and the Allies didn’t care much about Italian interests. Such feelings were further reinforced by events like the Sykes-Picot agreement between England and France over Syria and Palestine.15 The Italians also objected to Wilson’s Point 9, which asked for a readjustment of the Italian frontier “along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” This struck directly against the Treaty of London and the land it had promised to the Italians.

The Italian delegation therefore felt miffed at the Peace Conference that they weren’t being taken seriously; that it was more of a Council of the Big Three forcing its will upon the rest of Europe rather than any real peace settlement. Understandably, they didn’t seem to mind the deviations in Wilson’s Fourteen Points. After all, they only made the Italian case stronger.

Czechoslovakia entered the Peace talks with a distinct advantage. Even though she had not had the military and economic power to throw behind the Allied war effort, her two primary representatives in the Council of Ten, T.G. Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, were much respected by the Western Powers. Both had been to France, Britain, and the United States, and maintained good relations with the respective leaders – Wilson in fact relied heavily on Masaryk’s views on European affairs in making his decisions.16 The Powers also trusted Beneš to be an expert on minority affairs and often consulted him during the Peace talks. Both, Masaryk and Beneš, supported a clear separation from the Austro – Hungarian Empire which they felt was suppressing the Czech people. They did not simply oppose the Austrians politically but had developed a true aversion for the Austrians as can be seen by a comment in a letter from Masaryk to Beneš: “The Germans – Prussians are cruel but not as lowly and deceitful as the Austrians.”17

The Czechs made their demands very shrewdly.18 They understood that to claim a Czech homeland would be futile because the German speaking population of Bohemia would outnumber them and the self-determination principle would not apply. The same was the case for the Slovaks in Moravia. The claim was therefore made that Czechoslovakia be a united homeland for the Czechs and Slovaks in which both ethnicities could live peacefully and the Germans in Bohemia would be given more autonomy and other minority rights. The reason for uniting the Czechs and the Slovaks into one homeland was put forward as that the two ethnicities were strongly tied by history and were not too different. In reality however, both ethnicities were quite different from each other in cultural aspects. What they both shared was the occupation and persecution by the Austrians and the Magyars over the centuries.

The Czechs also took interpretive liberties with the census figures when presenting them to the Council of Four for consideration of their claim. Beneš claimed for example, that the German population of Bohemia was much less (approximately 800,000) than that which the Austrians claimed (3½ million) it was.19 What strengthened the Czechoslovak claim on Bohemia was, ironically, not the persuasive skills of Beneš or Masaryk, but the will of the Bohemian and Austrian people themselves. The Bohemian Germans, anxious for their voice to be heard, sent a representative to the Austrian Reichsrat and made a powerful appeal to remain under Austrian rule. However, the Austrians made a plea that they, on the basis of self-determination, be united with Germany. It was unthinkable, especially to the French, that the Germans, who had waged aggressive war, come out with more territory than they had started out with. In reviewing German proposals and position papers during the Peace Conference it becomes apparent that with the exception of a general protest against the inclusion of Germans in the newly established republics in the East, the German delegates never mentioned the Sudeten Germans. Even when dealing with the area of Upper Silesia, the German counterproposals point out the language of that area to be German and the economic need of Germany for that territory. The Germans could not make any case on the behalf on Bohemia without violating the precepts of the Armistice, for it had historically been part of the Habsburg Empire and not German. Germany thus focused all their diplomatic strength on German-specific advantages: the Sudeten problem had just become an Austrian-only issue.

Another claim Beneš made was about the “scatteredness” of German-speaking people in the provinces of the future Czechoslovakia. Even by the map Beneš used himself to explain the “intrusion” of Germans throughout the centuries, distinct areas of German-speaking people could have been clearly demarked for most German settlements. Had Czechoslovakia acknowledged such an analysis, it would have created the possibility for the bulk of Germans to be unified with Bavaria, Austria, or Saxony. On December 13, 1918, the Austrian Government protested the inclusion of the Sudetenland in a Czechoslovakian state. It strongly suggested a referendum, which would decide the fate of the area. While this suggestion was brought up several times, it was never honored with an answer.20 Beneš was able to steer the Great Powers away from considering the pleas of the Sudeten Germans for self-determination seriously.21

The Sudeten argument, as outlined by the speech of the elected President of German Bohemia, R. Lodgman von Auen, was two-fold: Germanic people had lived in Bohemia before the Slavs came to the area. The Slavs then proceeded to expel the Germans and this expulsion created an artificial “Czechness” in Bohemia. If their claim of “historic right” to the land were to be entertained, then either everyone had a historic right to the land that they lived on, or only prehistoric people, the true first settlers, did. Furthermore hearing this argument made by a United States ally seemed two-faced to the Germans since, if this argument were followed to its logical conclusion, the United States would have to return their land to the Native American population, as well. The Germans laid claim to the land by virtue of the hard work they had done in developing the resources of the land.22 In the end, these arguments did not help the Germans, for the Conference was very much loaded against them.23

The Czechoslovakian claims on Bohemia were truly outrageous given the statistical break-up of the various ethnicities living in that area. The Czechs can rightly be accused of disregarding the principle of self – determination themselves, not only because they demanded German Bohemia, but also because they quashed any voices from the Bohemian representatives to the Austrian Reichsrat and also lobbied against allowing Austria to speak on behalf of the Bohemians.

Such lapses on Wilson’s part to ensure an honest depiction of the situation can only be explained by his lack of knowledge of the intricate European situation brought about by years of convoluted history. Going into the Conference, Wilson and the Americans were painfully unaware of the complexities of European politics, society, and even geography.24 When asked after the Conference by his Economic Advisor, Frank Taussig, why he agreed to give southern Tyrol to Italy and not Germany or Austria, Wilson admitted that he had simply listened to the other three members of the Council of Four who had assured him that it was a clause in the Treaty of London which was acceptable – he wasn’t even aware of the map.25

Wilson’s staff made sure he was kept informed of some of the problems regarding the claims of various nations. In the case of Italy and Czechoslovakia (with regard to the topic of this paper) however, “experts” brought in by the other Powers, such as Sir James Headlam-Morley, historical adviser to the British Propaganda Department and the Foreign Office, convinced Wilson to make exceptions to his Fourteen Points.26

The Czech perspective and demands superseded even the principle of self-determination at the Peace talks. Despite the Allied sympathy for the Czechs on may fronts, the extent of Allied goodwill toward Czechoslovakia despite its meager overall contribution to the war is nevertheless astounding. The fact that it received even better treatment than the Italians, one of the Great Four, casts grave doubts over the intents of the Conference.

Outcomes of the Peace Conference

At the Conference of Versailles, Italy received the Trentino, Alto Adige, Venezia Giulia and the Dodecanese, while being refused Fiume and Dalmatia. A reaction to this followed, with the occupation of Fiume by the legionaries of Gabriele D’Annunzio. In the context of the grave political crisis following the war, from which Italy had emerged victorious but economically ruined due to her efforts, the country underwent a series of political and social agitations that the weak government of the period was unable to control. One remnant of the war was, however, resolved with the Treaty of Rapallo. The treaty gave Dalmatia, with the exception of Zadar, to the new state of Yugoslavia, formed from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy’s possession of Istria was confirmed. Fiume was also declared a free town but was annexed by Italy only three years later with a specific agreement between Italy and Yugoslavia.

The Italians thus achieved most of what was promised to them by the Treaty of London, though not strictly through participation in World War I. The point that the Allies had contested, perhaps as an excuse against the entire Italian demand, was that the Treaty of London did not promise Fiume to Italy. Italy could either have Fiume or the other territories. The Italian cause was not espoused by any of the Allies, and eventually, Italy had to acquire the additional territories it claimed by its own endeavors.

The decisions of the Conference regarding the Italian case clearly show that self – determination was not a principle that was high on the agenda of the Big Three. Italy was allowed to take areas that were clearly not Italian, while it was denied other areas that though had a lower population of Italians, was still influenced very strongly by Italian culture and customs. When Italy went to war within three years of the end of the Conference, neither the Big Three nor the League of Nations was willing to do anything to make them adhere to the principle of self – determination.

The Czechoslovakians received everything they asked for except the corridor with Yugoslavia. The border entanglement with Poland concerning the Silesian duchy of Tesin (where the population was overwhelmingly Polish) was decided in favor of Czechoslovakia for economic reasons. The Czechs were also awarded Bohemia due to economic reasons – Bohemia had almost 80% of the industrial capacity of the new Czechoslovakian state. To separate it from Czechoslovakia would mean that Czechoslovakia would not be able to sustain itself. In this case, it would be forced to have close relations with the German state of Bohemia, taking it away from the anti-German group into the German camp. The delegates at the Paris Peace Conference therefore viewed Bohemia as “one, and indivisible historically and economically.”27 Based on an inseparable Bohemia, the German-Czech controversy had changed from who had rightful claims to Bohemia to what people had the strongest claim to all of Bohemia. The situation was best expressed by Otto Bauer in the National Constituent Assembly of German Austria: “The ancient brute law of the victor has replaced the promised victory of right.”28 The minutes of the Council of Four meetings reveal that many decisions in the case of French, Belgian, Luxembourgian borders and claims were settled keeping in mind the economic repercussions of the actions rather than any idealistic principle of self-determination. 29

Even Wilson’s British and French counterparts did not share his idealistic principles, even though they paid it lip service. A weak Germany was foremost among France’s interests.30 This dictated the French position on Czechoslovakian independence and the Sudeten German issue, more than any principle of self-determination or any economic reason. Having an anti-German nation in Central Europe, “a dagger pointed to the very heart of Germany”, would weaken Germany strategically and would create a strong French ally. Clemenceau summed this up during a Council of Four meeting with the words: “Our firmest guarantee against German aggression is that behind Germany, in an excellent strategic position, stand Czechoslovakia and Poland.”31

The mountainous regions, where the Sudeten Germans had settled, were included in the excellent strategic position that Czechoslovakia was to have. Thus, to the French, the Sudeten German question was crystal clear: support the Czechs in their claims to as much territory as possible rather than unnecessarily strengthen Germany by letting them annex parts of a former Austrian territory. It must have been reassuring to the French to see that the Sudeten Germans were viewed as an isolated minority and not as an integral part of Bohemian society. If the Germans were involved in Czechoslovakian policy making, there would be the risk of those Sudeten Germans steering Czechoslovakia towards an alliance with Germany. Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that French diplomats never observed Czechoslovakian minority policies too closely.

As the Sudetenland did not affect British naval interests, they mainly remained passive about it. They were more concerned with the payment of reparations by Germany and the other Central Powers, as well as the newly formed states that were carved out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As no one was concerned with ascertaining the veracity of the claims made by the Czechoslovakian delegation and everyone (except perhaps the Americans) had an ulterior motive in the new order in Europe, the Czechoslovakian agenda was given more importance than the Italian claims, and the Czechoslovakian delegation was received more favorably.

The outcomes of the Conference thus clearly show that the Czechoslovakians got away with as much as they could get, while the Big Three held Italy back. The decisions in the end did not seem to be based on self – determination but national interest of the British and the French disguised under the label of economic reasons. Despite America’s reluctance to reward Germany, it still hoped to establish a balance of power and a long-lasting peace. In this light, it would be puzzling as to why the United States supported these decisions too, were it not for Wilson’s inexperience in European affairs and great confidence in Masaryk. It was like asking the fox to be the jury at a lamb’s trial.


The Italian role in World War I exceeded that of the Czechoslovakians in terms of economic output, military mobilization, length of active military participation in the war, and casualties. Italy had, during the course of the war, mobilized almost as many men as the Austro-Hungarians, including the Czechs and other ethnicities. The Czechs on the other hand could barely muster up a military force, and that too in the last days of the war.

Italy entered the war not altogether altruistically, but upon the promise of territorial concessions. The Czechs did not even exist as a nation until the final months of the war, and did not have any such understandings even when they formed their government in exile. At the Paris Peace Conference, Italy expected to be rewarded with at least hat was promised it if not more. The Czechs had no such guarantee to build on, but the goodwill of the Big Three. Neither country presented claims that fit Wilson’s principle of self – determination, but based its arguments on historical grounds or treaties. These claims were further backed up by economic and other such “practical” necessities, none of them having to do with self – determination.

Both nations came out of the Paris Peace Conference with additional territories. In the case of Czechoslovakia, it gained its statehood, finally free of the Austrians and the Magyars. Italy achieved only some of what was promised it by the Allies at the outbreak of hostilities, and those territories too did not entirely fit within to the principle of self – determination. What makes the comparison between these two Allied nations interesting is the difference in attitude towards these countries by the Big Three irrespective of their efforts and influence in the war.

The preoccupation of the Big Three to deal with Germany worked in favor of Czechoslovakia and against Italy. The French especially desired a strong Czechoslovakia at the expense of Austria and perhaps Poland at the expense of Germany. In their overzealousness to recreate in some fashion the Entente Cordiale between France and Russia before 1914, they were willing to sacrifice Wilson’s principle of self – determination. Quoting economic reasons, the French were able to justify to the others the granting of Bohemia to Czechoslovakia. The British too, preferred a weakened Germany. Following their principle of never allowing one nation to dominate the continent, it was hardly in their interest to see a strong Germany. Furthermore, a strong Italy would have been a thorn in their side as Italian colonial aspirations clashed more and more with theirs. Other than France, Italy was one of the few nations that could threaten British shipping interests in the Mediterranean.

The United States was perhaps the least selfish nation at the Conference despite the enormous military power it had brought to bear upon the Central Powers. Despite having come into the war very late, it played a decisive role in bringing an end to the hostilities. The American delegation did not have any secret treaty or hidden agenda they had to fulfill. Their only goal was to bring a just peace (as Wilson had promised before throwing his country into the war) back to Congress and the American people. Despite the unselfish position it enjoyed, the United States was far from unbiased. Wilson trusted Masaryk greatly, and often consulted him on European matters. This allowed the Czechoslovakian delegation a distinct edge in obtaining their goals. Wilson also disliked the Italian delegates to the Council of Four. He thought they were imperialists greedy for land and power, incompatible with the spirit of his Fourteen Points. He was exasperated with how the Italians insisted on receiving the benefits of the Treaty of London despite the political situation having changed since then. He was particularly unhappy at how the Italians always threatened to walk out of the Conference, thus not allowing him to present a united front to the Germans. These personal beliefs of the American President did much to influence his decisions.

In wanting to set up a strong Czechoslovakia, the Big Three over-ruled the principle of self – determination in favor of economic and security reasons. They did not verify the claims made by Beneš regarding the statistical composition of Bohemia, although they rejected the Austrian census of 1908 without any concrete reason. They were willing to allow Masaryk’s views on European political order influence their decisions, probably because they matched their own views. They disregarded the actual military and economic contributions made by the Czechoslovak nation in the war effort – it went unnoticed that for a nation so passionately anti-Austro-Hungarian and subjugated brutally, there were no massive riots that paralyzed parts of Austro-Hungarian economy during the war. It also did not matter that the Czechs fought on both sides of the war and their actual military contribution on the side of the Allies came only in the last days of the war.

The Italians were not so fortunate. The British and the French did not conceive the Italian military and economic effort as effective enough, even though Italy had been brought to the verge of a serious crisis due to the war. Italian expansionism was viewed with suspicion, even though their own was being guaranteed. Even though what was claimed by Italy was mostly within the bounds of self – determination, the Big Three obstructed the Italian claim as much as possible. Strangely enough, among the least opposed Italian claims was the one on southern Tyrol, perhaps because it took away from German land. Personal dislikes of the Italian delegates also influenced the rather harsh position the Big Three took on the Italian claims, even though they were promised in earlier treaties. Wilson’s attempt to renege on the Treaty of London can be viewed as a post facto attempt to bring the Italians to heel. The Italians were thus harshly treated due to the wariness of the Big Three of Italian aims.

At its core, the Paris Peace Conference represented two schools of thought in conflict. The contrast took the form – the unnecessary and perplexing form – of a contrast not only between the new diplomacy and the old, but between the new world and the old, between Europe and America.

On the one hand you had Wilsonianism – a doctrine which was very easy to state and very difficult to apply. President Wilson had not invented any new political philosophy, or discovered any doctrine which had not been dreamed of, and appreciated, for many hundred years. The one thing that rendered Wilsonianism so passionately interesting at the moment was the fact that this centennial dream was suddenly backed by the overwhelming resources of the strongest Power in the world. Here was a man who represented the greatest physical force which had ever existed and who had pledged himself openly to the most ambitious moral theory which any statesman had ever pronounced.

On the other hand you had Europe, the product of a wholly different civilization, the inheritor of unalterable circumstances, the possessor of longer and more practical experience. Through the centuries of conflict the Europeans had come to learn that war is in almost every case contrived with the expectation of victory, and that such an expectation is diminished under a system of balanced forces which renders victory difficult, if not uncertain. Backed by the assurance of America’s immediate and unquestioned support, the statesmen of Europe might possibly have jettisoned their old security for the wider security offered them by the theories of Woodrow Wilson.

After the Conference, not one of the Big Three had the political will to enforce the decisions of the Peace Talks. In 1919 Czechoslovakia seized Tesin from Poland with French backing. Other conflicts in Eastern Europe also ensued. In the light of what happened, the Peace Conference appeared to be a farce. However, some statesmen defended the outcome of the talks. Churchill thought that it was the best that could be done, and the will of most of the people prevailed.

The reason, perhaps, so many people today are critical of the Conference is because they judge it by keeping Wilson’s Fourteen Points in mind. Wilson was very frustrated and exasperated by the European ways of conducting diplomacy, and realized the complexity of the task he had taken upon himself. As time passed, he took a more and more realistic view of the situation. Economic considerations took precedence over self-determination; the fears of his allies were catered to; other treaties his allies had entered into had to be accommodated. In lieu of all these difficulties, Wilson shifted to a more realistic stance on the issues.32 He was however, held to his original vision of the new order he wished to impose, and by those standards, any treaty would appear shabby. All of the Big Three had a keen sense of history – they knew they were creating a precedent for future generations, yet they could not allow a grandiose Weltanschauung to cloud their perception of their current economic and social chaos. It is in this light their idealism – such a radical departure from contemporary European diplomatic practice – must be viewed. Wilson’s Fourteen Points may have been idealistic, but the Paris Peace Conference was at the end, realpolitik33 in disguise. The error that many commonly make is in not distinguishing between the two.

In conclusion, it can be said that the principle of self – determination was not applicable even to the victors, as has been seen in the case of Italy and Czechoslovakia. To argue that the Peace Conference was only the realpolitik will of the Big Three would be beyond the scope of this discussion, but the discrepancies with regard to only Italy and Czechoslovakia remove any illusion of idealism or even somewhat strict adherence to the Wilsonian principles.

1: Lloyd George is supposed to have said, “We shall have to fight another war again in 25 years time.”
2: Lloyd George had no thought of exacting impossible amounts of reparation from Germany. "Was it sensible," he said later, "to treat her as a cow from which to extract milk and beef at the same time?" But he was hampered by the ferocious demands of the British public, by the cries of "hanging the Kaiser" and "squeezing Germany till the pips squeak". At the most crucial moment of the peace negotiations Lloyd George was confronted by a telegram from 370 Members of Parliament demanding the he should make Germany pay.
3: The Czechs and Slovaks fought in the Austro-Hungarian army in large numbers and on three fronts – Russian, Italian, and the French front.
4: Masaryk did not initially demand a full separation from Austria. He was content with autonomy under the Habsburg monarchy. Once war broke out, and as the war progressed, his demands slowly changed to full independence.
5: The Deliberations of the Council of Four (March 24-June 28, 1919)Princeton, N.J.: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1992. Vol. I Page 76. Notes of the official interpreter, Paul Mantoux; translated and edited by Arthur S. Link, with the assistance of Manfred F. Boemeke.
6: Nittner, Ernst. Dokumente zur sudetendeutschen Frage 1916 bis 1967. Munich: Ackermann-Gemeinde, 1967. Page 39.
7: George, Lloyd. The Memoirs of the Peace Conference. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1939. Page 166
8: George, Lloyd. Page 503.
9: Italy was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary till they entered the war on the side of the Triple Entente in 1915.
10: George, Lloyd. Page 504.
11: Vittorio Orlando unburdened himself to a British junior delegate , obviously in an effort to make possible a back channel dialogue. He said, as was reported to Lloyd George, that “there was a disposition at the Conference to make out that the component parts of the old Austria had suddenly become allies, and should be immediately be recognised as such, even before they had really agreed among themselves as to the nature and constitution of the new state.
12: The Deliberations of the Council of Four (March 24-June 28, 1919) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Vol. I Page 450. – This is only one example of the many times Wilson, exasperated, criticise the Italian position.
13: Wilson, Woodrow. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Edited by Arthur Link. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1966. Vol. 57, Page 614.
14: Baron Sonnino pointed out the many other discrepancies, especially Poland, that were clearly visible in the Fourteen Points that were mentioned and the Fourteen Points that were being carried out.
15: The Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret understanding concluded in May 1916, during World War I, between Great Britain and France, with the assent of Russia, for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement led to the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French and British-administered areas. Italy was completely left out of the arrangements. Lloyd George mentions in his memoirs (George, Lloyd. Page 512) that the Italian reaction was because their statesmen were probably “bitterly jealous of the French and could not bear the idea of anything being done without their assent.”
16: George J. Kovtun. Masaryk & America: Testimony of a Relationship. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988. Page 60.
17: Frank Hadler. Weg von Osterreich! Das Weltkriesgexil von Masaryk und Beneš im Spiegel ihrer Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1914 bis 1918. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995. Page 547.
18: The Czechs demanded on historical grounds, Bohemia, Moravia, Trppau Silesia, and Teschen Silesia. They also claimed Slovakia, and a corridor with Yugoslavia. They also asked that the Czechs in Vienna and the Serbs in Lusatia be guaranteed minority rights under their respective governments in conjunction with the League of Nations. They also asked for the internationalisation of the Elbe, Danube, and the Vistula, claiming them to be essential to the State’s economic interests.
19: George, Lloyd. Pages 603, 607.
20: Habel, Fritz P. Dokumente zur Sudetenfrage. Munich: Langen Mueller, 1984. Page 116
21: Habel, Pages 120, 121.
22: Nittner, Ernst. Dokumente zur sudetendeutschen Frage 1916 bis 1967. Munich: Ackermann-Gemeinde, 1967. Page 57.
23: Wilson, Vol. 57, Page 155.
24: Wilson, Vol. 53, Page 56.
25: Wilson, Vol. 61, Page 388.
26: For Italy, see Wilson, Vol. 57, Page 96. For Czechoslovakia, see Wilson, Vol. 59, Page 400. For Wilson’s Fourteen Points, see Wilson, Woodrow. Vol. 59, Page 498. Sir James Headlam-Morley, was the most vocal “expert” in the British delegation that persuaded Wilson to consider economic reasons over ethnic lines. He spoke specifically in favour of giving the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia and southern Tyrol to Italy. He insisted on not letting Austria represent the Bohemians.
27: Lloyd George, Page 617.
28: Lloyd George, Page 613.
29: Lloyd George, Page 607.
30: Debating with Wilson and Lloyd George about moderation in the demands made on Germany, Clemenceau said, “America is far away, protected by the ocean. Not even Napoleon himself could touch England. You are both sheltered; we are not.” – The Deliberations of the Council of Four (March 24-June 28, 1919) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pages 34 – 35.
31: Koralka, Jiri. “The Czech Question in International Relations at the Beginning of the 20th Century,” Austrian History Yearbook, 1966, No. 2: Pages 248-260, 252.
32: An interesting argument was made by Francesco Leocini who claims that Wilson’s willingness to ignore the self-determination of certain people cannot be seen as an inability or lack of information on his part but more so a touch of pragmatism to make his vision of international peace come true. This, he claims is why Wilson took a strong position against French demands for the Rhineland but was willing to consider economic and strategic reasons with Poland or Czechoslovakia. – Francesco Leocini, “Das Problem der deutschen Minderheit in Bohmen in der internationalen Politik der Jahre 1918/1919,” Bohemia, 1972, No. 13. Pages 306-335, 311.
33: In effect, it was really the will of the Big Three, not even the Council of Four.