Academic conferences are a funny business. They are both scholarly and social, providing an opportunity for academics to get together and discuss research, foster collaboration, or talk about the latest academic gossip. This merging of the scholarly and the social has long characterised conferences, and was especially apparent at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
I wonder if the Paris Peace Conference was among the most important academic conferences in history. I call it an academic conference because of the number of scholars present in their guise as experts in national delegations to the peace conference. What is remarkable about the Paris Peace Conference is that scholars not only addressed the – often insurmountable – problems set to them by their national governments (such as the redrawing of national boundaries in Central and Eastern Europe), but that they fostered remarkable and influential scholarly collaborations. Most notably, the Peace Conference saw the development of the Institute for International Affairs (later Chatham House) and the Economic and Social History of the World War (edited by James Shotwell and sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).
In Paris, scholars and educators were both participants in world events and involved in an attempt to apply their own expertise to better understand them. There have rarely been – I think – more important academic conferences in history.
For more on this topic, see my recent article in the Journal of Global History called ‘Scholarly Identities in War and Peace: the Paris Peace Conference and the Mobilization of Intellect’.