This Day In History: November 15

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On November 15, 1917, with his country embroiled in a bitter international conflict that would eventually take the lives of over 1 million of its young men, 76-year-old Georges Clemenceau is named prime minister of France for the second time.

The young Clemenceau was first elected to parliament in 1876, five years after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. From that time on, he considered the newly united Germany a menace and another war as inevitable, given that “Germany believes that the logic of her victory means domination.” With a strong rate of industrial growth and a steadily increasing population, Germany pressed its advantage in the ensuing decades, while France’s economy remained static and its birth rate remained in decline. Clemenceau, who served as prime minister from 1906 to 1909, remained vehemently anti-German, arguing for greater military preparedness and tighter alliances with Britain and Russia.

Clemenceau’s predictions were confirmed in the summer of 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. Three prime ministers–Rene Viviani, Aristide Briand and Paul Painleve–served during the first three years of the war, as the continuing carnage on the battlefield combined with internal turmoil to bring the country’s morale to an all-time low. In November 1917, President Raymond Poincare put aside his personal dislike for “The Tiger”–as Clemenceau was known–and asked him to return as prime minister. Despite a long history of animosity between the two men, Poincare recognized that Clemenceau shared his desire to defeat Germany at all costs, and had the will to carry that desire to its end in spite of defeatist factions within the French government who called for an immediate end to the war.

Immediately after taking office, Clemenceau had his most vocal pacifist opponent, Joseph Caillaux, arrested and charged with treason; he subsequently vowed no surrender, telling the chamber of deputies that France’s only duty now was “to cleave to the soldier, to live, to suffer, to fight with him.” Over the next year, Clemenceau would hold his country together through the darkest days of the war and finally into the light: In November 1918, when he heard the Germans had agreed to an armistice, the old Tiger broke down in tears.

At the peace conference in Paris in 1919, Clemenceau stood alongside U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain as the three central negotiators. Clemenceau personally disliked both men, and the feeling seems to have been mutual. Lloyd George once famously remarking that he sometimes felt himself “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.” Clemenceau especially clashed with Wilson, whom he viewed as far too idealistic in his view of the post-war world. Though Clemenceau successfully insisted that the Versailles Treaty require German disarmament and stiff reparations, as well as the return to France of the territories of Alsace-Lorraine, lost in the Franco-Prussian War, he remained dissatisfied with the treaty in its final form, believing it treated Germany too leniently. Many in the French electorate agreed, and in January 1920 they rejected their old hero as prime minister. In his subsequent retirement, Clemenceau published his memoirs, The Grandeur and Misery of Victory, in which he predicted another war with Germany would break out by 1940. He died on November 24, 1929, in Paris.