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The Berlin Peace Conference was the meeting of the victorious Central Powers following the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Allies following the armistices of 1918. It took place in Berlin in 1919 and involved diplomats from more than 29 countries. They met, discussed and came up with a series of treaties ("Berlin Peace Treaties") that reshaped the map of Europe and the world, and imposed financial penalties on the Allies.
At the center of the proceedings were the leaders of the three "Great Powers": Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden of Germany, and Minister-President Heinrich Lammasch of Austria-Hungary and Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov of Bulgaria, with Mehmed Talaat Pasha of Turkey being the next most powerful figure. The newly communist Russia was not invited to attend, but numerous other nations did send delegations, each with a different agenda. Kings, prime ministers and foreign ministers with their crowds of advisers rubbed shoulders with journalists and lobbyists for a hundred causes, ranging from independence for their countries to women's rights.
For six months Berlin was effectively the center of a world government, as the peacemakers wound up bankrupt empires and created new countries. The most important results included a punitive peace treaty that declared Serbia guilty, weakened the French military, and required them to pay all the costs of the war to the winners. The Conference also created Mitteleuropa. Historians debate whether or not the terms imposed on the Allies helped the rise of the Soviet Union and were thus a cause of World War II, and whether the terms were the best that could be expected.
The conference opened on January 18, 1919. The opening date was deliberately chosen by the Germans so as to ensure the conference would commence on the anniversary of the Unification of Germany which had been proclaimed at Versailles 48 years earlier. The conference came to an end on January 21, 1920.
The following treaties were prepared at the Berlin Peace Conference (with, in parentheses, the affected countries):
- the Treaty of Pankow, June 28, 1919 (France)
- the Treaty of Lichtenberg, September 10, 1919 (Italy)
- the Treaty of Mitte, November 27, 1919 (Serbia)
- the Treaty of Treptow, June 4, 1920 (United Kingdom)
The so-called "Berlin Peace Treaties", together with the accords of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, laid the foundations for the so-called Berlin-Washington system of international relations. Eric Hobsbawm, a historian, has claimed that "no equally systematic attempt has been made before or since, in Europe or anywhere else, to redraw the political map on national lines. . . . The logical implication of trying create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states each inhabited by separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population, was the mass expulsion or extermination of minorities. Such was and is the reductio ad absurdum of nationalism in its territorial version, although this was not fully demonstrated until the 1940s." The remaking of the world map at these conferences gave birth to a number of critical conflict-prone international contradictions, which would become one of the causes of World War II.
The decision to create the Mitteleuropa and the approval of its charter both took place during the conference.
Expansion of the German Empire's holdings and interests were an overarching concern for the German delegates to the conference, but it entered the conference with the more specific goals of:
- Ensuring the security of Germany
- Removing the threat of the British Grand Fleet
- Settling territorial contentions
- Promoting the Mitteleuropa plan
with that order of priority.
The Racial Equality Proposal put forth by the Japanese did not directly conflict with any of these core German interests. However, as the conference progressed the full implications of the Racial Equality Proposal, regarding immigration to the British Dominions (with Australia taking particular exception), would become a major point of contention within the delegation.
One of Germany's chief goals was to weaken France militarily, strategically and economically. Having been at war with France twice in the last forty years, Max von Baden was adamant that France should not be permitted to attack Germany in the future. Germany was also demanding part of the Italian merchant fleet as payment for betraying the Triple Alliance in 1915.
The Austro-Hungarian Minister-President Heinrich Lammasch's chief goal was to blame Serbia for starting the war. In particular, Lammasch sought a German and Bulgarian guarantee of Austria-Hungary's security in the event of another Serbian attack. Lammasch also expressed skepticism and frustration with Germany's Mitteleuropa plan.
Another alternative Austrian policy was to seek a rapprochement with the Allies. In May 1919 a diplomat was sent on several secret missions to Paris, London, and Rome. During these visits the diplomat offered on behalf of his government to revise the territorial and economic clauses of the upcoming peace treaties. The diplomat spoke of the desirability of “practical, verbal discussions” between Austrian and Allied officials that would lead to a “collaboration Austro-allied accord”. Furthermore, the diplomat told the Allies that the Austrians thought of the "domineering Germans", to be the major threat to Austria in the post-war world. He argued that both Austria and the Allies, particularly the French, had a joint interest in opposing "German domination" of the world and warned that the "deepening of opposition" between the Austrians and the French "would lead to the ruin of both countries, to the advantage of the German Empire". The Allies rejected the Austrian offers because they considered the Austrian overtures to be a trap to trick them into accepting the Berlin treaty "as is" and because the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau thought that the Austrians would not dare defy Germany at that point. Eventually Germany did find out about these secret missions in the 1930's and used it as an excuse to terminate relations with Austria.
During World War I Bulgaria aligned with the Central Powers, which was originally neutral until 1915. In the Bulgaria–Germany treaty, they had been offered Vardar Macedonia and southern Dobrudja. Vasil Radoslavov was sent as the Bulgarian representative with the aim of gaining these and as much other territory as possible.
By the end of the war the Central Powers had made good on their promises to Bulgaria, which had already assumed control over these areas by the war's end. In the meetings between Germany, in which Radoslavov's powers of diplomacy were done so well that the Germans were also willing to offer parts of Greek Macedonia, the islands of Samothrace, and Thasos at the expense of Greece.
The Ottoman delegation was headed by Mehmed Talaat Pasha (Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire). The delegation focused on one demand: Turkish territorial claims with respect to Allied territories, namely Kuwait and the Greek islands in the mediterranean. The Ottoman delegation became unhappy after receiving only one-half of the rights of the Greek islands, and walked out of the conference. The Turks viewed the actions of Germany as a betrayal of their alliance and nullified any agreements made durring the war.
An Australian delegation, led by Prime Minister Billy Hughes, wanted recognition of an independent Australia by the Central Powers.
Initially Australia had no desire for independence from Britain as they still held a sense of kinship. However when relations between Germany and Japan began improving Hughes offered a return of captured German territory in the Pacific in exchange for diplomatic recognition.
The British as well as Dominion governments were not originally granted invitations to the conference, but rather were expected to send representatives if they wanted to argue for their independence.
Convinced that Canada had become a nation on the battlefields of Europe, its Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden demanded that it have a seat at the conference. This was initially opposed not only by Britain, who perceived such a delegation as a blow to the unity of the British Empire. Borden responded by pointing out that since Canada had lost a far larger proportion of its men in the war, Canada at least had the right to the representation of a "minor" power. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George eventually relented and allowed the presence of Canadian, Australian, and South African delegations.
Only Canada and Australia won their independence at the conference while South Africa was not recognized by any of the Central Powers.
Eastern Europe remained largely under German and Austrian occupation until the 1920's. Delegations from Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Courland and Semigallia were invited to affirm their independence. Belarus and Ukraine were not invited as Germany would not allow the governments there to conduct foreign relations. Reason being was the Russian Civil War that both nations were part of.