Conference 2018

'Peace in our Time?'

The Cambridge History Forum Conference took place at Selwyn College on Saturday March 3rd when the land was gripped by the “Beast from the East”, a blast of icy conditions. The Conference addressed the theme of “Peace in our Time?” with the three lectures exploring “Westphalia 1648. An order for Germany and Europe and a model for the Middle East”, “The Congress of Vienna” and the “From Versailles to Munich 1918-38”. The lectures were followed with discussion of wider questions stemming from the themes explored, with our guests contributing to a stimulating debate. Sadly, the inclement conditions led to a smaller audience than in recent years, nevertheless the students who were able to attend contributed many thoughtful and pertinent questions which served to both deepen and broaden terms of reference.

Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations and Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge delivered the first lecture exploring Westphalia 1648. The Thirty Years War, 1618 to 1648 was a calamitous blow for central Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. A series of conflicts, driven by dynastic rivalry and competing political visions were compounded by religious divisions. It is little wonder that parallels have been drawn between these events and problems facing potential peace makers in the Middle East, in particular, in modern day Syria. Professor Simms’ exploration of the Treaty of Westphalia pointed towards a means by which History may provide a guide rather than a blueprint for exploring paths towards resolving the current conflict. Given that politicians frequently use applied history, perhaps it is imperative that scholars can provide them with good advice. Professor Simms emphasised the potential dangers of drawing parallels which are too close and stressed that although this is not history per se, it could prove an important way of reaching a settlement. Indeed, as Churchill wrote, “The longer you can look back the further you can look forward.” Professor Simms was optimistic that a solution to the Syrian crisis could be reached through a congress to resolve interlocking conflict, emphasising the centrality of wider collaboration in reaching a settlement and in providing the required guarantees. Even if this may seem a distant prospect, the Treaty of Westphalia is thus a beacon of hope, for if peace could be achieved in 1648, it must be possible now! Ultimately, the past is another country. The past does not provide the answer, but may provide the questions which can lead to an answer.

In the second lecture, Adam Zamoyski, a specialist in European history and in particular, Poland presented an overview of background and impact of the Congress of Vienna, one of the great turning-points in European history. The profound issues explored of how to end a war and create a just and durable peace, are, as Professor Simms demonstrated, just as relevant today as they ever were. The speaker drew a series of insightful parallels between challenges facing peacemakers at Vienna and those seeking to establish a framework for peace before and during the Second World War. In both cases, agreements were laid before military action ceased, emphasising the difficulties of establishing a framework for claims. Adam Zamoyski highlighted a central problem underpinning so many attempts to reach peace settlements, namely that dissenting voices are declared illegitimate and subversive. In the case of Vienna, the Congress contributed to a maelstrom of plotting and terrorism in the years which followed. The contradictions at the heart of the settlement reflected a series of morally dubious compromises, as the powers who had benefited from Napoleon’s defeat were not prepared to sacrifice their gains. Ultimately of course, the territorial and legal settlement drawn up at Vienna did not last; three wars followed in the next fifteen years and by 1871, the map of Europe unrecognisable.

In our final lecture, Dr Geoffrey Hicks, Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of East Anglia University explored the aftermath of the Paris Peace Settlements. Dr Hicks argued that circumstances rather than individual errors of judgement were central in undermining the Versailles Settlement. In particular, the failure to develop a new balance of power was critical with American isolationism and the inability of Britain and France to both define and sustain the peace proving central issues. These difficulties were compounded by the impact of global economic depression when under grave financial pressures, and in France’s case, deepening ideological polarisation, the democratic powers found themselves dealing with the mounting threat posed by Germany, Italy and Japan. It is within this context that Chamberlain’s actions in expanding military spending should be viewed in a more favourable light even though the path to rearmament was slow. Fundamentally, economic and political pressures gave Chamberlain little scope for manoeuvre. Whereas Churchill wanted to reassert British power, Chamberlain viewed the situation differently; he recognised that Versailles had not worked and would not fight to uphold this. Ultimately, this approach did provide peace albeit for a short but crucial time. It was Chamberlain’s preparation and drive for rearmament which ensured Britain’s “finest hour”.

As always, thanks go to Selwyn College for their facilities and splendid hospitality. Over a fine lunch, we were able to reflect on what had been a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating event.