Rebuilding “Business Civilization” After the Great War: Dilemmas Facing the Supreme Economic Council in Paris 1919

Phillip Dehne

The First World War produced an economic calamity across all of Europe, but particularly in the devastated lands of the central and eastern European empires that lost the war.  In early 1919 during the months immediately following the armistice, politicians, diplomats, businessmen, and socialites from all the victorious powers gathered in Paris to craft the peace treaties.  They were confronted by a wide variety of immediate crises, perhaps the most overwhelming of which was social unrest among the starving people of central Europe.   Such disturbances threatened to bring down barely functioning new governments under a wave of Bolshevism from the east. 

To deal with these difficulties, the leaders of the Conference – Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George of Britain, and Georges Clemenceau of France – decided in early February to create a Supreme Economic Council (SEC), comprised of the leaders of their wartime economic systems.  Its leaders, including the former Minister of Blockade Lord Robert Cecil of Britain, the Treasury official John Maynard Keynes, French Minister of Commerce Étienne Clémentel, and American businessmen including Bernard Baruch and Herbert Hoover, agreed that to solve the fundamental problems of central Europe (lack of jobs and uncertain food supplies) they must help to restart trade there.  The members of the SEC disagreed, however, about the best course of action to achieve this. This paper describes this debate in Paris about how to revive or perhaps recreate the business civilization of Europe.