Slap the Jap and make the Hun pay

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Or, Australia strides onto the world stage.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Versailles Treaty and thus of the Covenant of the League of Nations (which formed the first thirty articles of the Treaty). This was a fateful moment, with heavy consequences for those who lived through the next quarter-century. But as all of that is well-known (and still debated), I want to draw attention to something that isn't: Australia's role in the Paris Peace Conference, which formulated both the Treaty and the Covenant. While Australia had existed as an independent nation since 1901, most Australians would consider the ANZAC participation in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 to be its true coming of age. Australian forces went on to serve with great distinction on the Western Front, Palestine and elsewhere, a shedding of blood which earned Australia a place among the peacemakers in Paris. But what use did Australia make of its first opportunity to influence the future of the world?

The short answer is that Australia pursued the ideals alluded to in the title of this post. Its chief representative at the Conference, Prime Minister Billy Hughes, argued vehemently for a heavy reparations bill for Germany to be included in the Treaty, and against a racial equality clause which Japan wanted inserted into the Covenant. In 1918, Hughes had chaired an Imperial War Cabinet committee on the question of German reparations, where he favoured the staggering figure of £24 billion. This was based on anger and greed (the higher the figure, the more Australia would get) rather than any assessment of what Germany could realistically afford to pay, in terms of both finances and stability. Hughes continued to push for maximum reparations throughout the Conference, making it harder for any consensus to be reached. A final decision was deferred; in 1921, the Reparations Commission decided that the final figure would be £11 billion, much lower than Hughes would have wanted but still far higher than economic experts advised.1

As for the racial equality clause, Hughes feared that to recognise the equality of races would mean that Australia would have to abandon the White Australia policy. This aimed to prevent immigration by non-British, non-white people: in particular, Chinese and Japanese. It was almost an article of faith for Australians. As Hughes told Parliament, Australia had gone to war 'to maintain those ideals which we have nailed to the very topmost of our flagpole -- White Australia, and those other aspirations of this young Democracy'.2 If anything, during the Conference he was even more vociferous on the racial issue than on reparations. And he got his way. Although a majority of nations voted for the inclusion of the clause, Woodrow Wilson, as chair, declared that the motion failed as it was not unanimous.

I'm not arguing that Hughes created the conditions for the Second World War. Though forcefully expressed, his opinions were shared by others at Paris. The other Dominions and some of the French wanted maximum reparations too, and David Lloyd George had promised high reparations in the 1918 general election, partly to satisfy public opinion, partly to help pay Britain's own war debts.3 Similarly, Hughes was far from the only racist at the Conference, though he was perhaps the only one willing to die in a ditch over the equality clause.4 If Hughes hadn't been at Paris in 1919, the end result might not have been terribly different in substance. But symbolism matters too.

In his recent book on the persistent myth that Japan was poised to invade Australia in 1942, Peter Stanley suggests that

Australia's military history traditionally, and increasingly, looks at wars from an Australian perspective. The question implicitly applied to almost all military history written in and about Australia in the past twenty years is, 'Yes, but how did it affect us?'5

Stanley's point is that Australians should also ask how we have affected war, and through it, the world. He rightly notes that pride can be taken in our role in defeating German fascism and Japanese militarism in the Second World War -- not just because of any threat they posed to Australia but because of the many millions of people we helped to free from their brutal grip. But I would add that we should also remember our less glorious contributions to peace, as exemplified by Billy Hughes in Paris. We helped to defeat German militarism in 1918, but then in 1919 helped to destabilise both Europe and the League of Nations through our greed and xenophobia. Australia is a small country, but that doesn't mean that when it goes to war it can ignore the consequences for the rest of the world.


  1. Australia got only £5 million, however. Anthony Burke, Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety (Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 52. 

  2. Quoted in Donald Horne's 2001 Barton Lecture

  3. He soon accepted that a relatively low figure was necessary, but managed to get a higher share of it for Britain. See Zara Steiner, The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919-1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 55-8. 

  4. See Margaret Macmillan, Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (London: John Murray, 2001), 328-9. 

  5. Peter Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942 (Camberwell: Viking, 2008), 250. 

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3 thoughts on “Slap the Jap and make the Hun pay

  1. Urban Garlic

    I recently completed reading Margaret Macmillan’s “Paris 1919″, which was a very useful introduction to the post-world-war-one peace conference. Prior to that, I had almost no knowledge of it — the scope was remarkable.

    (Aside: Is this the same book as your Macmillan reference? Maybe a different edition?)

    I don’t recall Hughes specifically, but on re-checking, I see that he does get an interesting index entry — the final line under “Hughes, Billy” is ” Wilson loathed by, pp.48-49, 93″…

  2. Post author

    Yes, it’s the same book — for some reason, it’s also been published under a third title, Peacemakers: Six Months That Changed the World! Publishers move in mysterious ways.

    And regarding Hughes and Wilson, I think the feeling was quite mutual!

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