The Peace Of Conquerors

This is an edited version of the Introduction to The Peace of Conquerors: Peacemaking in the Balkans 100 years ago. This book has been printed but not published.

The victims of war in the 20th century included not just those who had direct experience of conflict but also those whose lives were shattered by the peace settlements which followed. The post-1918 treaties in the Balkans had beneficiaries as well, of course, but they prospered quietly and it was the voice of the dispossessed and discontented which resonated through succeeding decades. That said, the primary focus in this study is on describing and explaining the work of the peacemakers in Paris. More attention is paid to the complex logic of making frontiers and the interplay of national interests and personal prejudice than to the distressing consequences – even if the latter mean that the book is ultimately a study in failure.

The peace made at the end of the First World War has been denigrated by historians for its impermanence and its part in causing another even more terrible world war. While most attention has been focused on Germany and the issues which spawned Hitler’s aggression, the peace made in the Balkans was also deeply flawed and pregnant with potential discord. Peace between Greece and Turkey lasted only a matter of months and that treaty was comprehensively undone within three years. Other treaties survived until the Second World War, when they did much to dictate the pattern of alignment and their provisions were largely swept away, at least temporarily.

This study will introduce readers to the men responsible for the key decisions, communicating, one hopes, an understanding of the diplomacy of peacemaking and the challenges faced by the leaders who gathered in Paris in 1919.  In the Balkans they had to deal with an area that was the epitome of political instability and ethnic conflict.  The antagonism between Bulgarians and their neighbours and between Romanians and Hungarians was as deep-seated as any of the hatreds of western Europe, even that between France and Germany.  To the pre-war mix of territorial feuds and accumulated resentments was added the bitterness of defeat for some and the triumphalism and vengefulness of the victors.  The leaders of Greece, Serbia and Romania, who had fought on the side of the Allies, saw their victory as a historic opportunity to expand and become great powers, in what James Bourchier called “a carnival of megalomania”.[1]  Their aspirations rarely brought them into conflict with each other, but they generated hostility among Bulgarians, Turks, Albanians and Montenegrins, and, looking beyond the Balkans, among Hungarians, Italians and Russians.  In January 1919, Lord Robert Cecil made the stunning charge that, “The Serbians are & always have been the curse of Eastern Europe.”[2]  If only land-grabbing rapacity had been confined to one nation!  As Robert Vansittart later wrote, “The entire Balkans wanted something that they had not got, which meant something that somebody else had got.”[3]   

At their worst, the statesmen responsible for the settlement were impressionable, selfish, egotistical, erratic and arrogant, and unable to appreciate the strength of feeling that their decisions provoked.  The French supported their Serbian and Romanian friends and dismissed the often valid perspectives of enemies like the Bulgarians and Hungarians.  Wilson’s idealism and self-righteousness produced a famous clash with the Italians over Fiume and Dalmatia and prevented a compromise agreement.  Above all, Lloyd George fell in love with Eleftherios Venizelos and encouraged the Greeks in their disastrous campaign against the Turks.  To take a more sympathetic view, the leaders were also over-worked and exhausted, torn by conflicting pressures, hamstrung by their military weakness in the area, and justifiably observant of their own national interests.  They produced a dangerously fragile settlement, but the difficulty of the enterprise has to be acknowledged.

Given the mistakes made in 1919, it will come as a surprise to find that there were heroes among the peacemakers.  Regional experts like Britain’s Allen Leeper, Harold Nicolson and Harold Temperley, and Charles Seymour and Douglas Johnson, American academics, worked day and night to establish the facts about demography, geography and economic and military viability that were required when drawing new frontiers.  There was none of the straight-line-on-a-map frontiers-making seen previously in Africa and North America; every small decision was based on the rigorous research of the Allied experts.  Some of these men were partisan.  Temperley was an enthusiast for Yugoslavia, Nicolson was strongly pro-Greek, and both Leeper and France’s Emmanuel de Martonne supported Romania’s cause.  But they formed their advice on solid, factual bases and Nicolson and Leeper were frequently critical of the Greeks and Romanians.  Besides, the politicians, not the experts, made the decisions and were responsible for the most damaging blunders.  Lions led by donkeys is the phrase that springs to mind, and, ironically, even the military men were sometimes more measured and astute regarding the settlement than the political leaders.

One man stands out among the experts, Allen Leeper, who played a significant part in almost all aspects of the Balkans settlement.  His work is the main focus of ‘Leeper’s Romania’ and ‘Leeper and Yugoslavia’ on this website.  Leeper’s insights litter the official records – his perceptive and pithy comments are an historian’s delight – and his private papers, now at Churchill College, Cambridge, provided the present writer with his single largest source of original material.

That Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Hercegovina receive so little attention might seem surprising given their prominence in several of the great crises in the Balkans.  But they did not feature on the agenda in Paris and in no sense were they dealt with by the Peace Conference.  Their unfortunate fates were already settled.  Even the place where war began barely figured in the deliberations, Bosnia having entered Yugoslavia in 1918; the Habsburgs’ last acquisition passed noiselessly into Yugoslavia, its entry as different as could be imagined from the trauma of its eventual exit.  If Yugoslavia was created in December 1918, however, before the statesmen gathered, its frontiers were a major and highly controversial issue in Paris, so the new country does loom large in this account.  Perversely, we will also travel far outside the Balkans, to Transylvania, Bessarabia and Asia Minor, carried there by Romanian and Greek expansionism.

The phrase “peace of conquerors” was used by a Serbian as he contemplated, with foreboding, the Adriatic question between Italy and Yugoslavia.[4]


Introduction 5
One: The Punishment of Bulgaria 9
Two: The Struggle for Greater Romania 39
Three: Romania, Hungary and Breaking the Alliance 73
Four: Yugoslavia and the Adriatic Question 100
Five: Yugoslavia’s Compromised Settlement 134
Six: Montenegro and Albania  165
Seven: Venizelos and the Megali Idea  198
Conclusion 231
Select Bibliography   233

The following is an edited version of the Conclusion. 

The task of the peacemakers in Paris was immensely difficult.  This was now a nationalist world in which ancient aspirations combined with recent strife – above all, in the Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1918 – to make enemies of those who competed for territory in the Balkans.  Territorial ambitions could not be reconciled: the advent of “Greateritis”, the quest for Greater Bulgaria, Greater Romania, Greater Serbia and Greater Greece, meant that conflict was almost inevitable.  The mixed ethnicity of many areas made clear-cut solutions impossible and differences about ethnic identity ensured that lines of demarcation would be questioned and resented.  There was no possibility of consensus in terms of the geographical limits of a nation. 

The peacemakers’ pursuit of their own national interests cannot be condemned outright, as if altruism and idealism could be their only motivation.  Nevertheless, there is much that can be faulted.  Britain’s promotion of Greater Greece led to disaster.  Italian ambition was excessive, bearing especially hard on the Croats and Slovenes, and the Powers lacked the will and unity to oppose it effectively.  A spirit of revenge created “a peace of conquerors” which sowed the dragon’s teeth of future wars or, at least, shaped the course of the Second World War in the region.  The Romanian and Yugoslav settlements, in particular, created hotbeds of nationalist outrage.  Magyars and Bulgarians received victor’s justice which showed scant regard for self-determination.  The Powers, who demobilised before making peace, were unable to enforce their will on d’Annunzio at Fiume, the Romanians in Hungary and the Turks in Anatolia.  Responsibility without power is almost as deplorable as power without responsibility.  The Albanians and Montenegrins, small and seemingly expendable, were pawns in a bigger game, and Muslims everywhere counted for little or nothing.  In the aftermath, the disengagement of the former Allies saw their failure to enforce minorities treaties which, if honoured, might have resolved grievances and created more stability.  The Balkans seethed with discontent in the interwar years even if it took the intervention of Hitler (and Stalin), assisted by willing hands in the region, to destroy the Paris settlement in the Second World War.

We can have only a superficial understanding of the passions of those who lived through the devastating wars of the second decade of the last century.  Equally, the concept of justice is often a subjective matter, not least because attributing collective guilt, punishing a nation or state for the sins of rulers and soldiers, is inherently problematic.  However, the peacemakers themselves established another set of criteria by which they might be judged, when they spoke of the need to create a stable and permanent peace.  On this score, they clearly failed.  It was essentially a European failure.  While the Americans prioritised stability and peace over the punishment of enemies, the Europeans looked to their own and their allies’ interests and provoked the discontented to fight again, the Turks immediately and effectively, others in the longer run.  As Aubrey Herbert wrote in 1920, “It may be easy for the moment for a man to pay his debts with another man’s goods, but this is no real liquidation, and trouble must follow.”[5]

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[1] Lady (Ellinor) Grogan, The Life of J. D. Bourchier (London, 1926), 189 (diary entry for 23 February 1919).

[2] Foreign Office Papers, FO 371/3570, 213, note by Cecil, January 1919. 

[3] Lord Vansittart, The Mist Procession: The Autobiography of Lord Vansittart (London, 1958), 196.

[4] FO 608/40, 184, Pavlovitch to Clemenceau, 9 May 1919.

[5] Bejtullah Destani and Jason Tomes., eds., Albania’s Greatest Friend: Aubrey Herbert and the Making of Modern Albania: Diaries and Papers 1904-1923 (London, 2011), 294, Herbert’s Reflections on the Balkans, 1920.