50 Signing Under Protest
From Part 5 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

ONE by one the various committees finished and submitted their recommendations. These were co-ordinated and drafted into the treaty. When the British delegates received their copies, every delegate was staggered. It had not seemed much to agree to a demand here or to refuse a concession there, in committee; but the cumulative result was a treaty so severe that it could never be enforced without crushing Germany. Many of the delegates protested at once, especially Milner, Botha, and Smuts.

Botha was deeply troubled. "My conscience and my reason are against it," he said; "for the penalty clauses will mean retaliation." He pleaded with the other British delegates to use their influence to reduce the severity of some of the clauses. When the details were being discussed before a Plenary Session of all the Delegations, he appealed for reason and clemency.

It happened that he was sitting next to Milner. When his turn came he rose and spoke briefly. "We have triumphed," he said, "because Justice has triumphed . . . but you must not, in revenge, destroy a nation. . . . I and my colleague, General Smuts, alone of all here have fought a war and lost all, government, flag—all . . . and we remember. We knew the bitterness of defeat. . .

For a minute he paused, and, taking a breath and with deep emotion and a voice that rang through the Great Hall of Mirrors where the delegations sat and with a tone which held all tense, he said: "Gentlemen! Seventeen years ago," and he put his hand on Milner's shoulder, "seventeen years ago to the day, my friend and I made a peace at Vereeniging. . . . It was a bitter peace for us. . . . We lost all . . . but we turned our efforts to saving our people; and the victors, they helped us. The English gave us a peace without vengeance. They helped us to rise again and that is why we stand beside them today."

Botha's plea made a sensation, but it did not persuade the delegates to reduce the severity of the treaty. Still troubled, he went to London and talked with Asquith. Then, quietly and solidly, he made up his mind that he would sign, for it would do more damage to refuse to sign than to sign, and it was to the interest of South Africa.

Smuts was far more vigorous, even violent in his opposition. He maintained that not only was this treaty impossible to enforce and had in it the seeds of" disaster greater than the war"; it was also based on" injustice and broken pledges." President Wilson had made a peace speech during the war, and, believing in the promises in that speech, he said, the Germans had signed the Armistice. He appealed to Wilson on his own promises, but Wilson was not to be tripped up in that way and replied that the treaty "was harsh . . . but on the whole just."

Smuts tried Wilson's private adviser, Colonel House, and told him that he would not sign the treaty. It was full of injustices. Germany would get the world's sympathy. No one would stand for a blockade, and for killing women and children, to get that treaty enforced. But House was unmoved by the lurid picture he painted.

He tried Balfour, who told him he was too pothered up with legalities.

Getting no satisfaction even from other members of the British Delegation, he became so violent in his denunciation that his best friends also looked on him as pro-German and the French papers attacked him, asking why South Africa, which had sent only a handful of men to fight—a brigade in all—lost little, become rich, and was gaining an immense tract of land, should presume to dictate the Treaty.

Smuts argued with Lloyd George, but got even less satisfaction, and he quarrelled with him once more: accused him of falsifying the minutes of one important meeting by saying the British delegates were unanimous, when he and others had disagreed; of pushing through a treaty which was madly impossible in its severity and unjust.

Lloyd George made no bones in replying. He denied point-blank that the minutes of the meeting were incorrect. As to the severity of the treaty—Smuts, he said, talked a great deal in vague terms: let him define exactly what he wanted. He pointed out that it was on Smuts' advice that the reparations to be paid by Germany had been increased by a vast sum to include pensions and separation allowances. He asked if Smuts was prepared to give German South West and German East and other colonies back to Germany and to meet Germany's claims for business losses in South Africa.

Smuts was in a quandary. Much of his criticism of the treaty was nebulous generalisations, vague, high-sounding phrases, and he could not give concrete proposals. He had advised the increase in reparations, though most of the lawyers on the delegations and all the Americans had advised that it was unjustified. His advice was written and in Lloyd George's possession, and could not be denied. He had no intention of giving up German South West or letting any of the German colonies round the Indian - Ocean go back or of paying compensation for German business losses in South Africa. He had in fact shown again what Botha had called "his infinite capacity for getting into difficulties," and this time it was not easy to escape.

He piped down on to a lower note. He wrote to Lloyd George, avoided answering his awkward questions, and used vague, muddled phrases such as "In this great business German South West is as dust compared to the burdens now hanging over the civilised world." But this did not change his views; it made him even more violent, and he telephoned to Botha, who was on a visit in London, that he would not sign the Treaty or even wait in Europe until the end.

Botha hurried over at once to Paris. There were only five days to the signing of the Treaty. He found Smuts at the Hotel Majestic getting ready to leave and his batman packing his bags. He would listen to no argument. He was obstinately set. He would not sign, and he was going at once. Botha, in despair, decided that, being Prime Minister, he would himself sign and leave Smuts out. By this compromise he hoped that his signature would make South Africa a member of the League of Nations and establish South Africa's new status as a nation while Smuts by refusing would satisfy the Dutch in South Africa, who would certainly be truculent when they knew the details of the Treaty.

Then he realised that this was impossible. They could never explain this in South Africa: he, Botha, signing; Smuts, the hero, who refused to sign. They must both sign or both refuse to sign.

He appealed once more to Smuts, using all his powers of persuasion.

"Surely, Jannie, you won't desert now," he said, and Smuts began to waver.

Together they went to see Lloyd George. Smuts repeated obstinately that he would not sign and mentioned a public protest. "Sign and protest afterwards," said Lloyd George.

Smuts went away to think out his decision by himself, and Botha, knowing him, let him go. It was twenty-four hours to the time for signature. For a space he walked in the Champs Elysées, his eyes fixed on the ground, absorbed, fighting out his battle with himself.

For Botha the decision had not been difficult. He saw things simply. It was for the good of South Africa, so he would sign, whatever the consequences or the criticisms.

Smuts' decisions came always out of a complication of reasoning, a sorting of possibilities, a balancing of alternatives; but his mind worked with such speed that he appeared to be as simple and direct as Botha. Now he had a difficult decision to make. He genuinely and passionately believed that the Treaty was bad and impossible, that the results would be more terrible than those of the war. He had a great hatred of Bolshevism. To him it was the world's greatest danger: a disease that would rot civilisation. Germany was the bulwark against Bolshevism. Germany must be given back her self-respect, so that her people would refuse Bolshevik propaganda and would stand by their own civilisation : and also she must have armed force to resist any aggression from Russia.

Had this been all he had to consider he would have decided not to sign. He would even have given up his cherished dream of the League of Nations, woven as it was into the fabric of the Treaty. That he stood almost alone and that he could not get his own way hardened his obstinacy and increased his contempt for the other "statesmen and their greedy squabbling."

But it was not all. Politics in South Africa had to be considered. If Botha and he signed, the Dutch would attack them for agreeing to so harsh a treaty against their German cousins. If they refused, then South Africa would have no claim to the new status of the Dominions of the British Empire or to take over German South West. He had boasted much that he would bring back to South Africa a treaty which would establish her as an independent nation. He dared not go back without that. He dared even less to go back without German South West. The Nationalists would be at him, saying he had spilt Dutch blood to win this new province, promised it, and then come back empty-handed. He peered out into the future, trying to see how Hertzog, cunning Hertzog, would use these things against him and how the people of South Africa would react.

Suddenly, he saw that the way out was to sign and protest, just as Hertzog had signed under protest at Vereeniging, and so put himself right with the Dutch, with his own people, and yet obey his conscience.

He walked rapidly back to the hotel and called his secretary. "I have decided to sign," he said, "but I will tell the reason why," and sat down and wrote out at once his memorandum of protest in his own spidery, difficult hand.

The next day he and Botha signed the Peace Treaty at Versailles, and the day following the English papers published Smuts' protest.

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