Georges Clemenceau’s Opening Address at the Paris Peace Conference, 18 January 1919
Gentlemen, you would not understand it if, after listening to the words of the two eminent men who have just spoken, I were to keep silent. I cannot elude the necessity of expressing my lively gratitude, my deep gratitude, both to the illustrious President Wilson and to the Prime Minister of Great Britain, as well as to Baron Sonnino, for the words which they have uttered.
In the past, in the days of my youth – long ago now, as Mr. Lloyd George has reminded me – when I traveled over America and England, I used always to hear the French blamed for that excess of politeness which led them beyond the boundaries of the truth. Listening to the American statesman and the British statesman, I asked myself whether in Paris they had not acquired our national vice of flattering urbanity.
It is necessary, gentlemen, to point out that my election is due necessarily to lofty international tradition, and to the time-honoured courtesy shown toward the country which has the honour to welcome the Peace Conference in its capital. The proofs of “friendship” – as they will allow me to call it – of President Wilson and Mr. Lloyd George touched me profoundly, because in these proofs may be seen a new force for all three of us which will enable us, with the help of this entire Conference, to carry through the arduous task entrusted to us. I draw new confidence from it for the success of our efforts.
President Wilson has good authority for his remark that we have here for the first time a collection of delegates from all the civilized peoples of the earth. The greater the sanguinary catastrophe which devastated and ruined one of the richest regions of France, the more ample and more splendid should be the reparation – not merely the reparation for material acts, the ordinary reparation, if I may venture to say so, which is due to us – but the nobler and loftier reparation – we are going to try to secure, so that the peoples may at last escape from this fatal embrace, which, heaping up ruins and sorrows, terrorizes the populations and prevents them from devoting themselves freely to their work for fear of the enemies who may spring up at any moment.
It is a great and noble ambition that has come to us all. We must hope that success will crown our efforts. This can only be if we have our ideas clear-cut and well defined. I said in the Chamber of Deputies some days ago, and I make a point of repeating the statement here, that success is possible only if we remain firmly united. We have come here as friends. We must pass through that door as brothers. That is the first reflection which I am anxious to express to you. Everything must be subordinated to the necessity for a closer and closer union between the peoples which have taken part in this Great War.
The Society of Nations has its being here, it has its being in you. It is for you to make it live, and for that there is no sacrifice to which we are not ready to consent. I do not doubt that as you are all of this disposition we shall arrive at this result, but only on condition that we exercise impartial pressure on ourselves to reconcile what in appearance may be opposing interests in the higher view of a greater, happier, and better humanity. That, gentlemen, is what I had to say to you.
I am touched beyond all expression by the proof of confidence and regard which you have been kind enough to give me. The program of the Conference, the aim marked out by President Wilson, is no longer merely peace for the territories, great and small, with which we are directly concerned; it is no longer merely a peace for the continents, it is peace for the peoples. This program speaks for itself; there is nothing to be added to it. Let us try, gentlemen, to do our work speedily and well. I am handing to the Bureau the rules of procedure of the Conference, and these will be distributed to you all.
I come now to the order of the day. The first question is as follows: “The responsibility of the authors of the war.” The second is thus expressed: “Penalties for crimes committed during the war.” The third is: “International legislation in regard to labour.”
The Powers whose interests are only in part involved are also invited to send in memoranda in regard to matters of all kinds – territorial, financial, or economic – which affect them particularly. These memoranda should be addressed to the general secretariat of the Conference.
This system is somewhat novel. Our desire in asking you to proceed thus is to save time. All the nations represented here are free to present their claims. You will kindly send in these memoranda as speedily as possible, as we shall then get on with the work which we shall submit for your consideration. You can deal with the third question from the standpoint of the organization of labour.
It is a very vast field. But we beg of you to begin by examining the question as to the responsibility of the authors of the war. I do not need to set forth our reasons for this. If we wish to establish justice in the world we can do so now, for we have won victory and can impose the penalties demanded by justice.
We shall insist on the imposition of penalties on the authors of the abominable crimes committed during the war. Has any one any question to ask in regard to this? If not, I would again remind you that every delegation should devote itself to the study of this first question, which has been made the subject of reports by eminent jurists, and of a report which will be sent to you entitled, “An Inquiry into the Criminal Responsibility of the Emperor William II.”
The perusal of this brochure will, without doubt, facilitate your work. In Great Britain and in America studies on this point have also been published. No one having any remark to make, the program is adopted.
It only remains for me to say, gentlemen, that the order of the day for our next sitting will begin with the question of the Society of Nations. Our order of the day, gentlemen, is now brought to an end. Before closing the sitting, I should like to know whether any delegate of the Powers represented has any question to submit to the Bureau. As we must work in complete agreement, it is to be desired that members of the Conference shall submit all the observations they consider necessary.
The Bureau will welcome the expression of opinions of all kinds and will answer all questions addressed to it. No one has anything further to say? The sitting is closed.
Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VII, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923