Raymond Poincare’s Welcoming Address
France greets and welcomes you and thanks you for having unanimously chosen as the seat of your labours the city which, for over four years, the enemy has made his principal military objective and which the valour of the Allied armies has victoriously defended against unceasingly renewed offensives.
Allow me to see in your decision the homage of all the nations that you represent towards a country which, still more than any others, has endured the sufferings of war, of which entire provinces, transformed into vast battlefields, have been systematically wasted by the invader, and which has paid the heaviest tribute to death.
France has borne these enormous sacrifices without having incurred the slightest responsibility for the frightful cataclysm which has overwhelmed the universe, and at the moment when this cycle of horror is ending, all the Powers whose delegates are assembled here may acquit themselves of any share in the crime which has resulted in so unprecedented a disaster.
What gives you authority to establish a peace of justice is the fact that none of the peoples of whom you are the delegates has had any part in injustice. Humanity can place confidence in you because you are not among those who have outraged the rights of humanity.
There is no need of further information or for special inquiries into the origin of the drama which has just shaken the world. The truth, bathed in blood, has already escaped from the Imperial archives. The premeditated character of the trap is today clearly proved. In the hope of conquering, first, the hegemony of Europe and next the mastery of the world, the Central Empires, bound together by a secret plot, found the most abominable pretexts for trying to crush Serbia and force their way to the East. At the same time they disowned the most solemn undertakings in order to crush Belgium and force their way into the heart of France.
These are the two unforgettable outrages which opened the way to aggression. The combined efforts of Great Britain, France, and Russia broke themselves against that mad arrogance. If, after long vicissitudes, those who wished to reign by the sword have perished by the sword, they have but themselves to blame; they have been destroyed by their own blindness. What could be more significant than the shameful bargains they attempted to offer to Great Britain and France at the end of July 1914, when to Great Britain they suggested: “Allow us to attack France on land and we will not enter the Channel”; and when they instructed their Ambassador to say to France: “We will only accept a declaration of neutrality on your part if you surrender to us Briey, Toul, and Verdun”?
It is in the light of these memories, gentlemen, that all the conclusions you will have to draw from the war will take shape.
Your nations entered the war successively, but came, one and all, to the help of threatened right. Like Germany, Great Britain and France had guaranteed the independence of Belgium. Germany sought to crush Belgium. Great Britain and France both swore to save her. Thus, from the very beginning of hostilities, came into conflict the two ideas which for fifty months were to struggle for the dominion of the world – the idea of sovereign force, which accepts neither control nor check, and the idea of justice, which depends on the sword only to prevent or repress the abuse of strength. Faithfully supported by her Dominions and Colonies, Great Britain decided that she could not remain aloof from a struggle in which the fate of every country was involved. She has made, and her Dominions and Colonies have made with her, prodigious efforts to prevent the war from ending in the triumph of the spirit of conquest and the destruction of right.
Japan, in her turn, only decided to take up arms out of loyalty to Great Britain, her great Ally, and from the consciousness of the danger in which both Asia and Europe would have stood, for the hegemony of which the Germanic Empires had dreamt.
Italy, who from the first had refused to lend a helping hand to German ambition, rose against an age-long foe only to answer the call of oppressed populations and to destroy at the cost of her blood the artificial political combination which took no account of human liberty.
Rumania resolved to fight only to realize that national unity which was opposed by the same powers of arbitrary force. Abandoned, betrayed, and strangled, she had to submit to an abominable treaty, the revision of which you will exact.
Greece, whom the enemy for many months tried to turn from her traditions and destinies, raised an army only to escape attempts at domination, of which she felt the growing threat. Portugal, China, and Siam abandoned neutrality only to escape the strangling pressure of the Central Powers. Thus it was the extent of German ambitions that brought so many peoples, great and small, to form a league against the same adversary.
And what shall I say of the solemn resolution taken by the United States in the spring of 1917 under the auspices of their illustrious President, Mr. Wilson, whom I am happy to greet here in the name of grateful France, and, if you will allow me to say so, gentlemen, in the name of all the nations represented in this room?
What shall I say of the many other American Powers which either declared themselves against Germany – Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras – or at least broke off diplomatic relations – Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay? From north to south the New World rose with indignation when it saw the empires of Central Europe, after having let loose the war without provocation and without excuse, carry it on with fire, pillage, and massacre of inoffensive beings.
The intervention of the United States was something more, something greater, than a great political and military event: it was a supreme judgment passed at the bar of history by the lofty conscience of a free people and their Chief Magistrate on the enormous responsibilities incurred in the frightful conflict which was lacerating humanity. It was not only to protect themselves from the audacious aims of German megalomania that the United States equipped fleets and created immense armies, but also, and above all, to defend an ideal of liberty over which they saw the huge shadow of the Imperial Eagle encroaching farther every day.
America, the daughter of Europe, crossed the ocean to wrest her mother from the humiliation of thraldom and to save civilization. The American people wished to put an end to the greatest scandal that has ever sullied the annals of mankind.
Autocratic governments, having prepared in the secrecy of the Chancelleries and the General Staff a map programme of universal domination, at the time fixed by their genius for intrigue let loose their packs and sounded the horns for the chase, ordering science at the very time when it was beginning to abolish distances, bring men closer, and make life sweeter, to leave the bright sky towards which it was soaring and to place itself submissively at the service of violence, lowering the religious idea to the extent of making God the complacent auxiliary of their passions and the accomplice of their crimes; in short, counting as naught the traditions and wills of peoples, the lives of citizens, the honour of women, and all those principles of public and private morality which we for our part have endeavoured to keep unaltered through the war and which neither nations nor individuals can repudiate or disregard with impunity.
While the conflict was gradually extending over the entire surface of the earth the clanking of chains was heard here and there, and captive nationalities from the depths of their age-long jails cried out to us for help.
Yet more, they escaped to come to our aid. Poland came to life again and sent us troops. The Czecho-Slovaks won their right to independence in Siberia, in France, and in Italy. The Jugo-Slays, the Armenians, the Syrians and Lebanese, the Arabs, all the oppressed peoples, all the victims, long helpless or resigned, of great historic deeds of injustice, all the martyrs of the past, all the outraged consciences, all the strangled liberties revived at the clash of our arms, and turned towards us, as their natural defenders. Thus the war gradually attained the fullness of its first significance, and became, in the fullest sense of the term, a crusade of humanity for Right; and if anything can console us in part at least, for the losses we have suffered, it is assuredly the thought that our victory is also the victory of Right.
This victory is complete, for the enemy only asked for the armistice to escape from an irretrievable military disaster. In the interest of justice and peace it now rests with you to reap from this victory its full fruits in order to carry out this immense task. You have decided to admit, at first, only the Allied or associated Powers, and, in so far as their interests are involved in the debates, the nations which remained neutral.
You have thought that the terms of peace ought to be settled among ourselves before they are communicated to those against whom we have together fought the good fight. The solidarity which has united us during the war and has enabled us to win military success ought to remain unimpaired during the negotiations for, and after the signing of, the Treaty. It is not only governments, but free peoples, who are represented here. Through the test of danger they have learned to know and help one another. They want their intimacy of yesterday to assure the peace of tomorrow. Vainly would our enemies seek to divide us. If they have not yet renounced their customary manoeuvres, they will soon find that they are meeting today, as during the hostilities, a homogeneous block which nothing will be able to disintegrate. Even before the armistice you placed that necessary unity under the standard of the lofty moral and political truths of which President Wilson has nobly made himself the interpreter.
And in the light of those truths you intend to accomplish your mission. You will, therefore, seek nothing but justice, “justice that has no favourites,” justice in territorial problems, justice in financial problems, justice in economic problems.
But justice is not inert, it does not submit to injustice. What it demands first, when it has been violated, are restitution and reparation for the peoples and individuals who have been despoiled or maltreated. In formulating this lawful claim, it obeys neither hatred nor an instinctive or thoughtless desire for reprisals. It pursues a twofold object – to render to each his due, and not to encourage crime through leaving it unpunished.
What justice also demands, inspired by the same feeling, is the punishment of the guilty and effective guaranties against an active return of the spirit by which they were tempted; and it is logical to demand that these guaranties should be given, above all, to the nations that have been, and might again be most exposed to aggressions or threats, to those who have many times stood in danger of being submerged by the periodic tide of the same invasions. What justice banishes is the dream of conquest and imperialism, contempt for national will, the arbitrary exchange of provinces between states as though peoples were but articles of furniture or pawns in a game. The time is no more when diplomatists could meet to redraw with authority the map of the empires on the corner of a table. If you are to remake the map of the world it is in the name of the peoples, and on condition that you shall faithfully interpret their thoughts, and respect the right of nations, small and great, to dispose of themselves, and to reconcile it with the right, equally sacred, of ethnical and religious minorities – a formidable task, which science and history, your two advisers, will contribute to illumine and facilitate.
You will naturally strive to secure the material and moral means of subsistence for all those peoples who are constituted or reconstituted into states; for those who wish to unite themselves to their neighbours; for those who divide themselves into separate units; for those who reorganize themselves according to their regained traditions; and, lastly, for all those whose freedom you have already sanctioned or are about to sanction.
You will not call them into existence only to sentence them to death immediately. You would like your work in this, as in all other matters, to be fruitful and lasting. While thus introducing into the world as much harmony as possible, you will, in conformity with the fourteenth of the propositions unanimously adopted by the Great Allied Powers, establish a general League of Nations, which will be a supreme guarantee against any fresh assaults upon the right of peoples.
You do not intend this International Association to be directed against anybody in future. It will not of set purpose shut out anybody, but, having been organized by the nations that have sacrificed themselves in defence of Right, it will receive from them its statutes and fundamental rules. It will lay down conditions to which its present or future adherents will submit, and, as it is to have for its essential aim to prevent, as far as. possible, the renewal of wars, it will, above all, seek to gain respect for the peace which you will have established, and will find it the less difficult to maintain in proportion as this peace will in itself imply greater realities of justice and safer guaranties of stability.
By establishing this new order of things you will meet the aspiration of humanity, which, after the frightful convulsions of these bloodstained years, ardently wishes to feel itself protected by a union of free peoples against the ever-possible revivals of primitive savagely.
An immortal glory will attach to the names of the nations and the men who have desired to co-operate in this grand work in faith and brotherhood, and who have taken pains to eliminate from the future peace causes of disturbance and instability.
This very day forty-eight years ago, on January 18, 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed by an army of invasion in the Chateau at Versailles. It was consecrated by the theft of two French provinces; it was thus vitiated from its origin and by the fault of the founders; born in injustice, it has ended in opprobrium. You are assembled in order to repair the evil that it has done and to prevent a recurrence of it. You hold in your hands the future of the world. I leave you, gentlemen, to your grave deliberations, and I declare the Conference of Paris open.
[Source: Records of the Great War, Vol. VII, National Alumni 1923]