Students from Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge teamed up recently with students from schools in Germany, France, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Denmark in a residential conference recreating the controversial 1919 Paris Peace Conference which drew up the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War and, according to some historians, led inexorably to the outbreak of the Second.
Simulating historical negotiations is nothing new, and extended role-plays will be familiar to many teachers from Model United Nations and Parliament exercises; but, an extended simulation of a key historical conference, with students from such a range of different European countries is a new departure. The conference was supported by the Historical Association and attracted generous funding from the Council of Europe. It was also monitored by the Centre for European Education in Bonn, which is planning to run a similar event to mark next year's 350th anniversary of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the appallingly destructive Thirty Years War.
The 1919 conference provoked outrage at the time by imposing draconian settlements on the defeated nations, particularly Germany, who lost large tracts of her territory, all her overeas colonies, and was landed not just with the blame for the entire war but with a substantial portion of the bill.
The treaties that resulted from the conference, signed in a series of comfortable chateaux in the Paris suburbs, aroused bitter resentment across Europe, and tearing up their terms was one of the main aims behind Adolf Hitler's moves in foreign policy.
The idea of the simulation was not to teach the terms of the treaties, but to try to give an idea of how the terms were reached. Far from being carefully planned, borders were sometimes decided on by elderly statesmen sprawled out over maps on the floor, hardly knowing if the lines they were drawing represented rivers, railways or a coffee-cup ring. The best way to understand this is to try to experience it, and by taking over Cambridgeshire County Council's residential centre at Burwell House for three days, that is what we tried to do.
Each school provided a delegation of four students representing countries other than their own, so the Danish students represented the United States, the Bulgarians represented Greece, the French Italy, and so on. The German students had the delicate task of representing Great Britain, while the host students played the role of the host nation for the original talks, France.
It was clear from early on that all would not run entirely smoothly. The French delegates in 1919 were fiercely anti-German and used their position as hosts to push their view forward; their 1997 counterparts took their guests, well nursed in modern rhetoric about European harmony and unity, by surprise by adopting exactly the same intransigent line. Interestingly, after the initial shock, most of the students responded by talking just as tough, so that the final treaties were, if anything, rather harsher on the defeated powers than the originals.
Harold Nicolson, who attended the original conference as a junior British diplomat, wrote that one of the major problems with the conference was that it never established a clear agenda or procedure. This may have been the case in 1919, but it was not a recipe for success with students, so each committee was provided with a clear agenda as well as correspondence, based on actual correspondence from the time, which it had to deal with. Rules were strict - formal dress for all delegates, a decision required on every agenda item - but the result was that the students were on task from the word go, often continuing their negotiations and preparations well into the night.
It worked. At the end of the conference the students were much more inclined to look indulgently on their 1919 forebears, while their colleagues who had been filming proceedings to produce a series of television bulletins quickly found themselves falling into media speak. After just one day all you could hear was "All very interesting; all very important. Where's the story?" and delegates found their slightest differences of opinion being seized on by eager reporters and made into a splash headline at six o'clock.
But perhaps the most interesting and valuable result came from the face-to-face contact the students had with each other. The British students, used to viewing the First World War as a tragic and futile waste of life, were taken aback to hear how Bulgarians, even those of their own generation, discount the human losses and regard the war as a national outrage which has still not been righted.
The Slovenes felt that the settlement, like the way it is taught in our schools, was another example of how those of us who live in the big European states fail to take seriously the smaller nations of Europe. And if the conference showed anything, it showed how that approach, whether in schools or in the corridors of power, can have tragic results.
Teachers wanting further details about how the 1919 Conference ran should contact Sean Lang, Head of History, Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge CB2 2PE