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First steps at Versailles: Ian McGibbon notes the centenary of New Zealand's emergence on the international stage at the peace conference that formally ended the Great War.

On 28 June 1919--the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo--New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey signed the Treaty of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, near Paris, that formally ended the war with Germany sparked by that slaying. Capping the first significant New Zealand involvement on the international diplomatic stage, this marked an important milestone on New Zealand's path to independence. Despite the momentous occasion, Massey did not tarry to observe the conclusion of the ceremony. He had a boat to catch: even before the last of the 27 Allied and Associated Powers' representatives and two German delegates had signed, he was on his way to Havre where a waiting British warship would take him out to join the ship that would bring him home to New Zealand.

The treaty Massey signed was a victor's peace. Since the conference opened on 18 January 1919, with 32 states represented (including the Dominions and India), the delegates had focused on the terms to be imposed on Germany. Contrary to expectations raised by President Wilson's Fourteen Points, Germany was not given the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the settlement. Instead they were shocked to be presented with non-negotiable terms on 7 May 1919. Despite the truculence with which the German delegates greeted this development, the German government had no choice but to accept the Allied diktat.

The Treaty of Versailles' 440 articles covered a wide range, from territorial issues to reparations. In retrospect, the treaty was not harsh enough, for, unlike the post-1945 situation, Germany was left territorially intact and capable of a resurgence should the terms be ignored. Moreover, the settlement was not harsher than that the Germans themselves had imposed on Russia in the 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. From the outset, however, the Germans railed against the treaty, especially the clause that held them responsible for the aggression and provided the justification for the vast reparations imposed on them. This drumbeat of criticism would in time facilitate the rise of Hider and the Nazi Party but, contrary to a common perception, it was not the primary cause of their assumption of power and thus of the Second World War --worldwide economic depression, not hostility to the Treaty of Versailles, opened the way for the Nazis and the eventual cataclysm.

That New Zealand for the first time played an active part in an international conference owed much to developments during the Great War. As the war dragged on, the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire had been brought into the imperial decision-making process--a major advance on the pre-war situation. Massey and his coalition partner Sir Joseph Ward were among the Dominion leaders who attended Imperial War Conferences in London in 1917 and 1918. But they were back in New Zealand when the fighting suddenly ended on 11 November 1918.

The question of Dominion representation in the impending peace conference soon came to the fore after it was agreed that the great powers should each send five delegates, smaller allies two and minor powers one to the peace conference. Unhappy with the proposals for association of the Dominions with the imperial delegation, Canada, Australia and South Africa demanded separate representation. Given the agreement already that each of the great powers were to have five representatives, how were the Dominions to be accommodated? It was eventually resolved that each Dominion would have two representatives, but New Zealand only one; they would participate in the deliberations but would be members of the British Empire Delegation. At sea when this was decided, Massey and Ward were not in a position to contest this arrangement. Their later protests that New Zealand was left in the position of Honduras or Haiti and inferior to South Africa, despite having made a greater sacrifice, were unavailing. Although Massey represented New Zealand, Ward went to Paris too, and participated in the BED.

Massey played a full part in the formal proceedings, though most decisions were made by the great powers in the Council of Ten. He sat on the commission that investigated responsibility for the war and war crimes, chairing the sub-commission on facts; he later also chaired the drafting committee. His hopes that the Kaiser would be tried for war crimes would be disappointed.

New Zealand had two main interests at the conference. It wanted to secure not only a share of the reparations but also its position in German Samoa, while also gaining access to Nauru's super-phosphate. Like the Australian prime minister, Massey founds himself at odds with US President Woodrow Wilson over the fate of former German colonies. Wilson's implacable opposition dashed Massey's hopes of annexing Samoa. Ultimately a compromise was reached. Former German territories would be held as mandates. New Zealand retained control of the territory, foreshadowing an unhappy time in the 1920s in dealing with Samoan resistance. The mandate for Nauru was awarded to the British Empire, to be jointly administered by Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Although at one stage New Zealand expected to receive a large sum in reparations, it ultimately saw very little, if any, of this money, as Germany reneged on its obligations and the Allied powers failed to enforce the provisions of the treaty.

The Treaty of Versailles was the first major international diplomatic instrument signed by a New Zealand prime minister, albeit as part of the BED. But the treaty also established a new collective security organisation--the League of Nations--in which it would be a member in its own right. The Versailles settlement established New Zealand on the world stage, even as it remained legally a subordinate part of the British Empire.

Dr Ian McGibbon ONZM is the author of New Zealand's Western Front Campaign (2016).
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Title Annotation:ANNIVERSARY
Author:McGibbon, Ian
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:May 1, 2019
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