n Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe - Die Eerste Wêreldoorlog as faktor in die Suid-Afrikaanse toetrede tot die internasionale gemeenskap : navorsings- en oorsigartikels

Volume 56 Number 1-0
  • ISSN : 0041-4751



When the First World War started on 4 August, 1914, the Union of South Africa was barely four years old. In international terms the country was on the far end of the world and not very important. In addition, the country was a self-governing British Dominion, not able to pursue an independent foreign policy. Nevertheless, at the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, co-signed by its representatives, Generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, South Africa was recognised as a player in its own right on the international political podium. This was brought about by especially two factors. The first was South Africa's military role in occupying German South West Africa and its important role in the occupation of German East Africa. The second was the participation of an infantry brigade on the Western Front in France and Flanders. Although this role was limited, it was exploited to the hilt by Jan Smuts during his sojourn in London and Paris during 1917-1919. Smuts was received as a hero when he arrived in London in the first months of 1917, and became a member of both the Imperial War Cabinet and the British War Cabinet. As such, his contribution to the Imperial Conference of April 1917 was conclusive in getting recognition for the Dominions' right to independence - although it would take until 1926 and 1931 for this to be legally formalised. Nevertheless, Smuts played a decisive role in winning the right for the Dominions to be represented in their own right at the Paris Peace Conference and sign the Versailles Peace Treaty. In the months before the Armistice of November 1918, he was Prime Minister David Lloyd George's right hand man and did an unbelievable amount of work, including advising the British High Command on Western Front operations, the founding of the Royal Air Force, solving various labour disputes and even sounding out the Austrians about peace. After the Armistice, Smuts played a huge role in conjunction with President Woodrow Wilson in bringing about the League of Nations. However, the last weeks before the Peace saw Smuts locked in a bitter fight with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau - full of hatred for the despised Boches - as well as Woodrow Wilson (who had all but abandoned his own conciliatory approach) and an opportunistic, vacillating Lloyd George, Smuts resisted the severe peace conditions dictated to the Germans. He repeatedly drew the others' attention to the British magnanimity after the Anglo-Boer War as an example of how conciliation could be achieved, and pleaded for a similar approach to the Germans. Moreover, he saw that Germany had to play a decisive role in any future Europe. He feared that the severe conditions would fuel so much bitterness in Germany that it could lead to a future war - which, of course, did happen barely 20 years later. Smuts felt so strongly about this that he threatened not to sign the peace treaty, and it took massive pressure by Lloyd George and his own Prime Minister, Louis Botha, to change his mind. Nevertheless, in spite of his failure, by June 1919 especially Smuts had carved out for South Africa an international standing which nobody could have imagined five years previously.

Toen Zuid-Afrika op 4 augustus 1914 betrokken raakte bij de Eerste Wereldoorlog, was het als onvrij deel van het Britse Rijk. Vijf jaar later tekenden de generaals Louis Botha en Jan Smuts de Vrede van Versailles namens een land dat in alles behalve naam onafhankelijk was - al werd die onafhankelijkheid pas in 1926 en 1931 ook in de praktijk erkend. Dit was dankzij Zuid-Afrika's militaire deelname aan de oorlog, en Smuts' enorme rol als internationaal staatsman in Londen en Parijs in 1917-1919. Smuts' bijdrage aan Brittanje's oorlogspoging was uniek, en hij kreeg het bij de Rijksconferentie van 1917 voor elkaar dat de voormalige Britse kolonies in de praktijk als gelijken van Brittanje erkend werden. Ook speelde hij een doorslaggevende rol bij de stichting van de Volkenbond. In 1919 verzette hij zich tegen de vernedering van Duitsland met het argument dat dit in de toekomst opnieuw een oorlog kon uitlokken - hetgeen inderdaad gebeurde. Hier moest Smuts echter het onderspit delven. Nietemin was het hoofdzakelijk aan hem te danke dat Zuid-Afrika tegen 1919 een volwaardig deel van de internationale gemeenschap was.

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