As the Armistice which ended the fighting was signed, at eleven o'clock in the morning of the 11th November, 1918, the people of England went wild with excitement and with relief from the strain of four long years of fighting for their lives. They had awakened from a hideous nightmare and they shouted with joy. And out of that relief and sudden release from danger, which for so long had been insistent, close behind each man's shoulder, there came a fierce demand for revenge on the Germans and on their rulers: a demand that the Germans should pay and be punished for all the misery and destruction they had inflicted on the world.
In the wild excitement, in the demand for revenge, even in the sense of relief, Smuts could take no part. He had not felt the strain and he could not realise the relief, or the waking out of the nightmare. He could not understand the wild excitement, even less the demand for revenge. In all the uproar, while round him crowds shouted and danced in frenzy, he stood alone, cold, solitary, detached.
He resigned from the War Cabinet, gave up his position on committees, including the presidency of the Committee for Demobilisation, and began to prepare for his part in the coming Peace Conference, and especially to draft out his conception of a league of nations.
Europe, he saw, had been torn into quivering strips, broken up into a hundred jagged pieces. The old systems were gone, and with them the old beliefs and the old stability. If Europe was to be rescued from chaos and anarchy and its civilisation saved, something had to be created to take the place of the old order. It should be a league of nations. "This League," he wrote, "will have to occupy the great position which has been rendered vacant by the destruction of many of the old European empires and the passing away of the old European order."
He found many others thinking on the same lines: Leon Bourgeois, the French philosopher, Lord Robert Cecil in England, President Wilson in America.
The conception fitted in with his philosophy of life, that small units keep ceaselessly uniting into bigger units, which in turn unite again into bigger units. For him, all life was such a progression: the four colonies becoming the Union of South Africa, then South Africa with England and the other Do-minions and Colonies uniting into the British Empire, and now the British Empire with all the Nations of the Earth united into a League of all the Nations.
He spent his spare time on his scheme. He discussed it with the leading legal experts. He travelled round England speaking at meetings on it. He drafted it as a memorandum for the Cabinet, and, as the date for the opening of the Peace Conference came near, he issued it in the form of a pamphlet: "The League of Nations. A Practical Suggestion."
Botha came from South Africa to join Smuts. He had changed much during the last two years. While in other countries during the war political parties had agreed to a truce in their quarrels, in South Africa they had attacked each other even more fiercely.
Hertzog, with Tielman Roos and Malan and their followers— Steyn and de Wet were gone—had worked for a republic. They had toured the country in a big campaign. They had used all the consequences of the war to help them—the increase of taxes, the rise in the cost of living, the general unrest in all men's minds. They had preached that now was the chance to break away from England, while she was in a death struggle in Europe, and the chance also to chase out the traitors who had sold South Africa to England, of whom Botha was the chief.
They had worked up a campaign of hatred against Botha personally. They had used every trick, every insult, every lie to rouse the people against him. "He was up to the elbows in the blood of Dutchmen": had boasted of killing rebels who were Dutchmen. He was a renegade, a traitor, a turncoat. They dragged up old stories about him. He had as a young man been a hanger-on, they said, to a corrupt deputy in the old Transvaal Republic, and that was how he had got on. He was ruining South Africa, dragging them all into a war in which they had no concern and a war against the Germans, who were their cousins.
The campaign and the lies had their effect. Many of the Dutch who before had stood with Botha left him and joined Hertzog.
Botha had been ill. With Smuts away the whole Government had been on his shoulders and he was tired, for it had taxed all his strength. The campaign against him had mortally hurt him. He was over-sensitive and felt insults over-acutely. But what hurt him most was to see that it was the Dutch, his own people, who were deserting him, who cursed him and distrusted him, and this had taken all the joy and the objective out of his life.
The British Empire was to be represented at the Peace Conference by delegates from England and the Dominions, fourteen in all, with Botha and Smuts to speak for South Africa. The idea of the Domiions being represented had not at once been accepted in England. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill had disliked it. The Foreign Office had been scandalised at the novelty. But Milner, in contrast, had agreed without hesitation, and the Dominions, led by Canada, had quite resolutely said that they had in the war proved their "nationhood" and they intended to be represented. Smuts maintained that their attendance at the Peace Conference and their signing of the Peace Treaty would be a proof before all the world that they were now equal partners with England and would be the date of their coming of age as nations.
The delegates met in London for the preparatory work. Very quickly Botha and Smuts realised that they could not agree with many of the ideas of their colleagues. The English members in particular were as fierce for revenge as the people in general. They were determined to "make the Germans pay . . to search their pockets for the uttermost farthing." Botha and Smuts looked on such demands as unsound and impossible.
When they reached Paris for the Conference they found it even less to their liking. Every delegation had come to grab what it could get. Poland wanted a bit of the Ukraine. Belgium wanted the mouth of the Scheld and a slice out of neutral Holland. All the peoples of the broken-up Austrian Empire and of the Turkish Empire made some claim: Arabs, Armenians, Czechs, Slovaks, and a host more. Italy and France and each of the-forty-five allied countries wanted all they could get. They produced big-scale maps and pamphlets to prove their claims with columns of facts and figures for every delegation and they filled every committee room with their clamour. Some of the French generals wanted to march in triumph to Berlin and occupy a province of Germany as a reprisal. Italy wanted to destroy Austria. Rumania wished to annex half Hungary. The French leader wished to smash Germany into small republics, destroy her for ever, and so make France the dominant military power in Europe. Some of the French politicians proposed to make a levy on neutrals, especially on Norway, Sweden, and Holland, who had helped Germany, and so to make them pay for a part of the war. There were still half a dozen small nations fighting happily with each other. To the two South Africans, the world and its representatives in Paris seemed to be mad.
Botha and Smuts were like two human beings who had suddenly landed on a new planet and found it inhabited by people who appeared to be like themselves, but worked up into a frenzy of excitement by passions and desires and impulses so illogical that they could not understand them and with which they could not sympathise.
Neither Botha nor Smuts understood Europe or the Europeans. Coming from South Africa, they could not visualise the fears hundreds of years old, of oppression and invasion, of constant watching of frontiers, of massacres, murders, and ravaging, of a hundred quarrels far older than South Africa, but deep down seared into the being of the peoples of Europe. Without interest in these things and without any active conception of this background Botha and Smuts were being asked to help to solve the problems of reconstituting Europe.