Antony Lentin. Lloyd George and the Lost Peace: From Versailles to Hitler, 1919-1940. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 182 pp. Â£42.50/$60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-333-91961-3.
Reviewed by Robert K. Hanks (University of Toronto)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2002)
David Lloyd George has always defied easy categorization. As Chris Wrigley has written, assessments of him "have varied more dramatically than those of any other figure in modern British history." >From his first election as an unknown MP from Wales in 1890 to his investiture into the House of Lord in 1945, his career was one of continuous transformation. The course of his political odyssey may be summed up in a series of remarkable paradoxes. The Welsh maverick was the outsider who became the ultimate insider; the radical pacifist of the Boer War who massively expanded the armaments industry in 1915-1916; the "Little Englander" who presided over one of the biggest imperial land grabs in history; and "the little man" who became one of the "Big Three" at the Paris Peace Conference. More notoriously, he was the Edwardian social reformer who was tainted by the unsavory Marconi scandal; the Liberal who formed a coalition with the Conservatives and split his own party; and the zealous opponent of Kaiser Wilhelm II who later befriended Hitler. To his contemporaries and historians, the "Welsh witch" has always been fascinating, infuriating and controversial. Often, he simply dazzled: on his North American tour in 1923, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to hear him speak, prompting the Ottawa Journal to declare that his return to power was inevitable . The failure of this seemingly certain prediction simply added to the mystery of Lloyd George.
In this short collection of six essays, Anthony Lentin attempts to determine the character of the "real Lloyd George" (p. 2). As an authority on the Paris Peace Conference, he has understandably chosen to answer this question by focusing on the diplomatic dimensions of Lloyd George's career between 1919 and 1940. By limiting the scope of his analysis in this manner, Lentin has considerably simplified the problem posed by Lloyd George. Can one really discern the nature of the "real" Lloyd George without taking into account his career before 1919? Yet there are restrictions on what a short think piece such as this can undertake. By limiting his ground, Lentin has made his topic more manageable and has provided an analytical framework for a thoughtful and well-researched discussion of the Paris Peace Conference and the subsequent "Lost Peace".
The first four essays in the collection focus on Lloyd George's conduct of the Paris Peace Conference. Like many diplomatic historians, Lentin's analysis of the conference makes little to no reference to the conduct of inter-allied diplomacy and strategy during the First World War, an approach that might be termed the immaculate conception theory of the Paris Peace Conference. In particular, much more might have been said about Lloyd George's policy toward the Empire, his expansion of which exerted a relentless pull on British military resources away from western Europe. Such omissions aside, Lentin's grasp of Lloyd George's role during the actual peace conference is succinct, confident and highly nuanced, avoiding the hagiographic tendencies inherent in the history of "great men". While fully aware of Lloyd George's shortcomings, Lentin's account retains a strong lietmotif of admiration for his flexible, creative, and successful conduct of diplomacy. Building upon the work of such historians as Marc Trachtenberg, Sally Marks and Stephen Schuker, Lentin portrays Lloyd George's role in the escalation of reparations demands on behalf of British pensioners. Moving into more original territory, he devotes a chapter to the Anglo-American Guarantee Treaty to France. Here he shifts the blame for the failure of the Treaty from Woodrow Wilson's mismanagement of the ratification fight to Lloyd George. After promising to guarantee French security, Lloyd George progressively whittled down the British commitment. First, he duplicitously excluded the Dominions, and then he made the Britain's pledge contingent upon approval of the American Senate by adding the word "only" into the text of the treaty at the last minute (pp. 55-58). For Lentin, Lloyd George's gifts for ambiguity and duplicity were assets.
This theme is made abundantly clear in his refreshing analysis of Lord Cunliffe and Lord Sumner, who have without question been losers in polemical debates on the Paris Peace Conference. Not only does he successfully provide a human face for the much-maligned "Heavenly Twins", but he convincingly defends their diplomatic role at the Peace Conference. Rather than being fanatical Germanophobes whose reparations policies endangered the financial future of Europe, as portrayed by Keynes and many other detractors (including Lloyd George in his memoirs), Sumner and Cunliffe were intelligent and indeed affable men. Both were able civil servants who loyally fulfilled the roles assigned to them by their Prime Minister. By posing as champions for large reparations, the "Twins" insulated Lloyd George from domestic criticism, increased his scope for maneuver against the reparations hawks in the French delegation, and provided support against the appeasers in the British and American delegations. They became essential pieces in his reparations strategy. Working in tandem, Sumner and Cunliffe did as much for Britain's image strolling together on the boulevards in Paris as they did at the negotiating table. Even when talks on reparations were bogged down, their value was so great that Lloyd George turned down Cunliffe's request to return to London (p. 38). Above and beyond the general merit of this collection, this essay alone is an essential addition to the historiography on reparations and the Paris Peace Conference.
While Lentin has little new to tell us about either the French or the American delegations to the Peace Conference, his work on the British delegation is broadly based. One chapter looks at the phenomenon of British appeasement in the Paris Peace Conference. Building upon the analysis of Michael Fry, Lentin examines the principal appeasers of the British delegation, including Smuts, Botha, Barnes, Balfour, Cecil, Nicholson, Headlam-Morley and Keynes. Some of these were tactical appeasers, some were ideological appeasers, some were both, but all were united by a general sense of Christian values, fair play, noblesse oblige, justice, and charity toward the defeated (p. 85). It must be emphasized that many of them were also Francophobes and racists- Headlam-Morley complained that French diplomats bargained "like Jews", while Smuts likened the Poles to "Kaffirs" (pp. 77, 81).
Where does Lloyd George fit into this picture? Lentin argues that he understood the moral objections expressed by his delegation, but as his stand against Smuts and Barnes at the end of the conference clearly indicates, he was no ideological appeaser. Nevertheless, as Lentin correctly emphasizes, his showdown in parliament against Lord Northcliffe and the diehards on the Tory backbenches in February 1919 undid the constraints imposed by the Khaki election and created increased scope for diplomatic maneuver at the Peace Conference (pp. 13-14). Lloyd George's subsequent Fountainbleu memorandum defined essential British interests, which he then ably defended by seeking the middle ground between appeasement and punishment. In this reviewer's opinion, Lentin is too positive in his assessment of the Fountainbleu memorandum (p. 13). Lloyd George's claim in it that it would be easy to create peace for twenty years was an overly simplistic misreading of European diplomatic history. Nevertheless, it is fair to argue that Lloyd George's gift for negotiation prevented the collapse of the Paris Peace Conference, opened the door for the appeasement of the 1920s, and ensured the successful defense of British interests - at least in the short run.
In contrast to his treatment of the Paris Peace Conference, Lentin's final two chapters stray too far toward Lloyd George's self-estimation. His least persuasive chapter revisits Lloyd George's meeting with Hitler in 1936. For Lloyd George's admirers, this has always been an embarrassing incident, while for his detractors it simply cemented his reputation as an irresponsible demagogue. Perhaps not too much should be made of this meeting - after all, many Britons admired Hitler, or at least Germany, during the 1930s. And as Lentin points out, Lloyd George's visit to Berchtesgaden had the unofficial blessing of the Baldwin government (p. 94). Yet his defense of Lloyd George makes too much of too little. Most of this chapter is based on the testimony of Lloyd George's acolytes, whose readiness to praise the meetings between the two "great men" seems colored by their own eagerness to be part of a great historical event. Hitler's admiration for Lloyd George was evidently sincere, but his self-proclaimed anglophilia was based on the assumption that Britain should not oppose Nazi hegemony in Europe. Would Lloyd George have been able to capitalize on this "respect", such as it was? Lentin admits that the chances were slim, but asserts that no one could have done worse than Chamberlain (pp. xii-xiii). Here one must wonder. Chamberlain's failures were profound, but given the challenges of defending an overextended empire, the structural obstacles facing British rearmament, and Lloyd George's own long-standing prejudices against Czechoslovakia and Poland, it is hard to imagine him as a champion against German expansion into eastern Europe. Surely Lloyd George's estimation of his own ability to handle any problem is suspect. For Richard Lloyd George, the meeting with Hitler was yet more proof that his father's judgment was becoming impaired.
Lentin's final chapter presents a more difficult problem than Lloyd George's visit to Germany. Based on the diaries and correspondence of Lloyd George's private secretary Arthur Sylvester, this chapter offers a fresh glimpse into Parliamentary attitudes toward the conduct of diplomacy between 1936-40. Shortly after returning to Britain from Berchtesgaden, Lloyd George characteristically shifted his position again. Reacting to Hitler's intervention in the Spanish Civil War, he called for stronger ties with France and overtures to the Soviet Union, or as he preferred to say, "Russia" (p. 108). For the a next four years, Lloyd George consistently attacked Chamberlain in the backrooms and in Parliament for failing to use the Russia card, a position that has subsequently been reiterated by many historians. It was "madness", Lloyd George argued, for Chamberlain to guarantee the boundaries of eastern Europe without first ensuring "Russia's" cooperation (p. 111). Privately, he believed that Britain should take advantage of Hitler's peace proposals in 1939-40. If a peace conference were held, he believed that he could outtalk Hitler and turn the situation to Britain's advantage (p. 117). Taking advantage of his prestige as the great leader of the First World War, Lloyd George's vigorous speeches and sly innuendo undermined Chamberlain's position in parliament throughout the Phony War and played a key role bringing Chamberlain down in June 1940. Whereas Sylvester believed that his master's was motivated by spite, and that his pretensions were "bosh" or "defeatist", Lentin is more sympathetic, arguing that Lloyd George's position was in accord with the attitudes of the Dominion governments and that he enjoyed much more public support than is realized. Not only did Lloyd George receive thousands of letters supporting his willingness to entertain Hitler's peace overtures, but he also drew a crowd of over 8000 supporters into a packed hall in Carnaervon Boroughs (p. 119). In parliament, Lloyd George sensibly opposed Allied intervention against Russia in the Finnish Winter War. In Lentin's opinion, Lloyd George was more realistic than either Chamberlain or Churchill (p. 127).
It has become increasingly fashionable to denigrate Churchill during the Second World War and to praise his rivals. Within this broad historiographic context, Lentin's mildly revisionist essay adds to our understanding of the political mood in Britain during in 1939-40. From this, one may surmise that pro-appeasement sentiment probably persisted in Britain until the opening of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Again, however, Lentin's defense of Lloyd George is unconvincing. It may be true that no man is held in high esteem by his servant, it is also sometimes true that the servant is right - in this case, Sylvester was closer to the mark than his master. Churchill's policy was not as unrealistic as Lentin implies - Churchill knew he could count on the RAF, the Royal Navy, Ultra, and the English Channel. It is very likely that Operation Sea Lion would have been a great German disaster. Looking further abroad, Churchill's assets included the Empire, the benevolent neutrality of the United States, and the strong possibility that Hitler would invade the USSR. Moreover, Lloyd George's position was flawed. As Sylvester noted, first Lloyd George criticized Chamberlain's peace effort, then he criticized his war effort (pp. 114-15). It was one thing to score debating points against his hated rival Chamberlain in the House of Commons, but it was quite another thing to persuade the Poles to accept the Soviet Union's aid, especially after its murderous conduct toward its Loyalist allies during the Spanish Civil War and its own generals during the Red Army purges. If Chamberlain's foreign policy was unable to save eastern Europe from the Nazis and protect British interests on the continent, then neither was Lloyd George's legerdemain. Lloyd George was unable to supply an alternative policy, for there were no palatable alternatives for any British policy makers in eastern Europe. Ultimately, his chief significance in 1940 was domestic. The elderly Lloyd George was still capable of formidable oratorical performances, but without any party machinery at his disposal, he was unable to convert these into positive results. As a result, his opposition to Chamberlain prepared the way for Churchill even though he disagreed with the latter's foreign policy.
When Georges Clemenceau first met Lloyd George in 1908, he concluded that some of Britain's "public men were appallingly ignorant." This was a monumental underestimation, for Lloyd George later out-negotiated Clemenceau at the Paris Peace Conference on the Anglo-American Guarantee Treaty. But the Tiger had a point, and had he been privy to Lloyd George's private ruminations in 1940, he would have felt vindicated in his judgment. When the German armies steamrolled over France in 1940, Lloyd George commented that Hitler "was the greatest figure in Europe since Napoleon, and possibly greater than him" (p. 126). This analogy reveals the limitations of Lloyd George's mindset. His comment indicates that his diplomatic calculations were probably partly inspired by the Peace of Amiens in 1802-05, but if this was the case, then it was a poor analogy. As many notorious incidents demonstrated, Hitler was already by then the most barbaric ruler in modern German history. Chamberlain misunderstood Hitler, and so too did Lloyd George. A peace like Amiens would have allowed the German dictator to prepare for new conquests and to carry on murdering innocent civilians in both Germany and the occupied territories. Lloyd George's traditional diplomatic calculations were increasingly irrelevant in Hitler's world of racial warfare. Constrained by the past, and deluded by his own estimation of himself, the real Lloyd George was simply out of his depth. He was incapable of saving the international system that he had done so much to create. His accomplishments at Versailles were formidable, if Machiavellian, but in the final years of his long political career, Lloyd George was simply too clever by half.
. See the useful bibliographic survey on Lloyd George by: Chris Wrigley, "David Lloyd George, 1863-1945", in The Historian. The Magazine for the Members of the Historical Association 26 (Spring 1990), pp. 10-12. This should be supplemented by: George W. Egerton, "The Lloyd George War Memoirs: A Study in the Politics of Memory", Journal of Modern History 50 (1) March 1988, pp. 55-93; David French, The Strategy of the Lloyd George Government, 1916-1918 (Oxford; At the Clarendon Press, 1995).
. Thomas Jones wrote that the crowd that came to see Lloyd George in Cleveland set a world record. Richard Lloyd George estimated that his father addressed a crowd of four hundred thousand people on one stop during the tour. Thomas Jones, Lloyd George (London; Oxford university Press, 1961), pp. 204-06; Richard Lloyd George, Lloyd George (London; Frederick Miller, 1960), p. 221.
. For example, see Philip Magnus' strange assertion that Gladstone's appeal to the people in the Midlothian election was somehow corrupted and passed on by Randolph Churchill to Lloyd George, and from Lloyd George to Hitler. Philip Magnus, Gladstone (London, John Murray, 1963 ed.), p. 328.
. Conservative Opposition to Appeasement in the 1930s (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1971); N. J. Crowson, Facing Fascism. The Conservative Party and the European Dictators 1935-1940_. (London; Routledge, 1997).
. Richard Lloyd George, p 228.
. Christopher Hitchens, "The Medals of his Defeats. Examining the Revisionist Version of Winston Churchill", The Atlantic, 289 (4), pp. 118-37.
. Karl G. Larew, "The Royal Navy in the Battle of Britain", The Historian, 54 (2) (Winter 1992), pp. 243-54.
. David Robin Watson, Georges Clemenceau. A Political Biography (New York; David McKay Company, 1974), p. 226.
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Robert K. Hanks. Review of Lentin, Antony, Lloyd George and the Lost Peace: From Versailles to Hitler, 1919-1940.
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