Clemenceau Quote

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I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.

David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, on his experiences at the Paris Peace Conference with Wilson and Clemenceau.

For you a hundred years is a very long time; for us it does not amount to much. I knew men who had seen Napoleon with their own eyes. We have our conception of history and it cannot be the same as yours.

French Premier Georges (The Tiger) Clemenceau to President Woodrow Wilson, April 25, 1919

Clemenceau had lived and worked in the US for several years and spoke English fluently.  He was married to an American for twenty-one years until a contentious divorce ended his one and only marriage.  It is a tragedy that he understood the US far better than President Wilson understood Europe.

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18 Comments

  1. I recall teaching the “shortness of history” to sixth grade kids. I merely tell them that my father-in-law was born (1896) in the same century that Thomas Jefferson was president and their jaws literally drop.

  2. On a more mundane note, I wonder if the Clemenceau entree at Galatoire’s in New Orleans is named after him given his time in the U.S.?

  3. Sorry, not impressed with M. Clemenceau’s condescension. They don’t live any longer in France than they do in the United States, Wilson had with scant doubt been acquainted with veterans of the War of 1812, and Wilson was as much an heir of Renaissance England as Clemenceau was of Renaissance France. France has two things we lack: a beautiful language and a great deal of handsome old architecture. We have one thing they lack: satisfactory manners.

    Clemenceau favored constitutional systems and thought collecting dependencies abroad a poor use of the public purse. Otherwise, his politics were stinky.

  4. Clemenceau’s overall politics is not the issue of this post. What is at issue is that he understood the ongoing problem of an unstable Germany and Wilson did not. As for history, Wilson’s own tomes demonstrated what a poor understanding of even American history he possessed. His “make the world anew” messianism, the true driving force of Wilson, helped turn the peace conference and the resulting Versailles Treaty into a disaster of the first magnitude.

  5. What is at issue is that he understood the ongoing problem of an unstable Germany and Wilson did not. As for history, Wilson’s own tomes demonstrated what a poor understanding of even American history he possessed. His “make the world anew” messianism, the true driving force of Wilson, helped turn the peace conference and the resulting Versailles Treaty into a disaster of the first magnitude.

    That’s not an indicator of a poor understanding of American history in particular, but a poor understanding of human possibilities generally as manifest in the history of international relations.

    Wilson was invested in waste-of-time collective security schemes. He also promoted the disestablishment of the German monarchies (though it’s a reasonable wager they’d have fallen anyway). I don’t think you can lay responsibility for the troublesome political economy of the interwar period at Wilson’s feet and certainly not his feet exclusively. Wilson left office in 1921. The serial failures in monetary policy over the next 18 years in Britain, on the Continent, and in North America were not his doing. Ditto the ill-effects on Germany’s political culture of the contrived humiliations of the Versailes regime.

  6. You have to look at his 14 points as a whole Art. Complete messianism, completely unrelated to prior human history. It was no accident that Wilson was also a poor historian. Wilson helped prevent the Paris Peace Conference from crafting a peace that could have been enduring, as occurred at the Congress of Vienna in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Clemenceau summed up the fiasco well:

    “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.”

  7. You can’t lay everything at Wilson’s feet, but if he wasn’t the worst two-term President in American history, I don’t know who is. A starry-eyed incompetent whose bigotry was only exceeded by his self-regard.

    Clemenceau’s condescension was a mistake, given the bloated ego of the man he was speaking to. But when you factor in the fact more than 4% of France died in the War and toss in another 4.2 million wounded, I can understand his annoyance. Yes, America’s raw, ill-trained and ill-equipped flood of troops saved the day, but it was Wilson’s fault that we weren’t remotely ready to fight on land even against Mexican bandits. We charged to the rescue, but we hadn’t bled and suffered like France had.

  8. ” I knew men who had seen Napoleon with their own eyes.”

    Bl John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and in the 1950s, I met an old couple in Birmingham, brother and sister, who remembered him well

    I am often struck by the length of folk-memory more generally. I own a piece of ground, about 18 acres of winter pasture, which is known locally as “the ten shilling land of Boyd.” [The shilling is an old British coin, 20 to the pound, abolished in 1971]

    As a child, I was intrigued by the name and so I asked the old shepherd about it. He looked after the sheep on the common grazings and he knew everything. He told me that there was once a wicked king, who charged the poor people money, just for living on their own land.

    Years later, I had occasion to check the progress of title in the Register of Sasines and, sure enough, the piece of ground was described as being “ten shilling land of Old Extent.” Now, the Old Extent was a survey of rental values, carried out by King Alexander III in 1280, in connection with a proposed land tax.

    People around here don’t forget things like that in a hurry.

  9. Clemenceau’s two quotes are most entertaining. Clemenceau’s positions can be understood due to the severe losses France suffered in terms of loss of life, war injuries and illnesses and property destruction – not to mention the 1871 Franco-Prussian
    War.

    As for Wilson, inept, grandiose and whatever else you want to call him, I am grateful he listened to Ignacy Paderewski and made the re-establishment of an independent Poland part of his 14 Points.

    I blame the Germans – really, the Prussians – for the whole mess – and my mother is mostly of (Catholic) German ancestry.

  10. Wilson helped prevent the Paris Peace Conference from crafting a peace that could have been enduring, as occurred at the Congress of Vienna in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.

    My half-remembered bits of diplomatic history had it that the Congress of Vienna had the following priorities: balance of power, compensation, and legitimacy. In that order. The challenge to that in re the Versailles-Trianon-Sevres regime was that one major power (Russia) had now adopted a weird revisionist-revolutionary stance which relied on informal penetration, another (the United States) had availed itself of an option to withdraw from political engagement, and another (the Hapsburg Monarchy) had evaporated. Which weights are you balancing? One might speculate that compensation might have assisted in containing political revanchism in Italy; there were definite constraints on employing it on the European continent, however, given that you had mobilized ethnic populations. Not sure if restoration of the deposed German monarchs could have or should have been incorporated into Versailles or the other treaties. The allied powers attempted a menu of contrivances to emasculate Germany, but these were crucially dependent upon an abiding willingness of the Allies to be coercive with Germany. I don’t know that you could have drafted treaty provisions which would have counteracted a flagging willingness to mix it up with Germany, so I’m not seeing how Wilson at Versailles is responsible for that failure. An alternative might have been to resort productive capacity between sovereign countries, something that might have been done by replacing the extant affiliations of the German states with an Austrian federation and a Prussian federation comprehending 1/3 and 2/3 of the population and productive capacity of the German states collectively. Not sure anyone ever advocated that, or that it could have been implemented had they done so.

  11. Germany as a nation in 1918 had an existence from 1871 to 1918. One idea would have been to dissolve the Second Reich back to its component parts. Bavaria, for instance, had always been restive under Prussian Rule. Germany would have quickly become the site of competing nationalisms. This may not have made for a more peaceful Germany short term, but it would probably have ensured a weaker Germany so that the Second World War would not have started a scant 21 years after the first. The Versailles Treaty on the other hand left Germany a territorial whole, while infuriating that state with reparations, a feature counter-productive to both victors and vanquished. Wilson opposed almost all measures against German territorial integrity, viewing his illusion, the League of Nations, as sufficient to safeguard peace in the world. That was Wilson’s main detriment as a peace negotiator: his adamant refusal to distinguish between reality and his dreams.

  12. One idea would have been to dissolve the Second Reich back to its component parts.

    I’m wondering if you could have built some support in the northern part of Germany by insisting on the page that Prussia relinquish some of the territory it had seized over the years. Dispossessed royal houses could have been advocates for improved local autonomy – see Hanover, Nassau, Hesse, Frankfurt, and the House of Augustenborg,

    Between north and south in Germany you see boundaries demarcating zones of dialect, confessional balance, and manners.

  13. Perhaps. In the wake of defeat in 1918, many Germans were looking for an alternative to the Imperial system that had led them to disaster. The distaste against Prussia and Berlin in many parts of the country cannot be overstated.

  14. True that, Mr. McClarey. Kulturkampf originated in Prussia. Oddly enough, little of what was Prussia today is under German control. Over the centuries, Prussia managed to wrest control of the Baltic coast north of Poland stretching to Lithuania. Gdansk today was Gdansk before it was Danzig. Konigsberg is now the Kaliningrad Oblast.

    I may have occasion to go through Frankfurt in a few years, as there is a direct flight from Pittsburgh there and it is a one hour flight to Warsaw.

  15. The alternative to the Imperial system was the prior collection of independent polities which comprised the self titled “Associated Governments of the German Empire.” That however was no longer possible because Wilson refused to negotiate with the crowned heads, ensuring the instability that led to Hitler.

  16. “There was a moment when it hung by a thread whether Bavaria should not be joined with Austria to form a Danube State. But Clemenceau cried, ‘What—Another Catholic State in Europe? No, thank you! Poland is quite enough!’ And Prussia gained the prize.”
    – Hilaire Belloc – Survivals and New Arrivals
    https://www.ewtn.com/library/answers/surviv.htm

  17. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if they’d have broken up Austria-Hungary, like they did, but united Austria with Germany, thereby undoing Bismarck’s Kleindeutchlösung, and made the last Hapsburg Emperor, Karl I ruler of Greater Germany.

    Probably something really bad.

  18. if they’d have broken up Austria-Hungary, like they did,

    Politicians in various parts of the Hapsburg monarchy seized the reins in October, November, and December of 1918. They got encouragement from the allies, but the evaporation of the Hapsburg state was anything but forced and it was complete before the Versailles conference opened.

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