In 1985, a book about the Paris peace conference which followed the First World War and produced the Treaty of Versailles would surely have interested historians everywhere and non-historians not at all. It would have been a book about obscure persons in obscure places fighting for obscure principles. The deliberations of the various sub-committees of the conference would have sounded eye-glazingly dull with the long names of unrecognizably remote territories. Should Montenegro go with Croatia and Serbia to form Yugoslavia? Should the Ottoman province of Mosul become part of a new state called Iraq?
During the long Soviet freeze of the Cold War, it is doubtful that even one in one hundred North Americans could have found these places on a map. The balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union had simply swept a multitude of smaller issues of the table. Perhaps we should all be forgiven for forgetting the powerful forces of nationalism that were unleashed during the Great War. By 1985, Yugoslavia was somnolent and the war Iraq was fighting with its neighbour Iran was not considered by anyone to be a threat to the West. (After all, we could get oil from the Saudis, our undoubted friends. No trouble there.) Who suspected what bottled anger and resentment the Berlin Wall really contained? When it fell, forces of nationalism that had been nearly extinct for decades once again flourished. What had been frozen once again burned.
That’s why Margaret MacMillan’s recent book about the peace conference, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, is so much more than the dry work of history it should have been. It’s hard not to read the later chapters on Arab independence and the creation of new states like Iraq without seeing the fuse being installed on a time bomb set for the year 2001.
The Paris peace conference was like nothing that could be imagined today. The leaders of the great powers spent six months together in Paris and for those six months, essentially operated as the world government, handing out sovereignty and national borders to peoples across the globe.
The book focuses on the three leaders that controlled the conference, Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain, President Wilson of the United States, and Prime Minister Clemenceau of France. In addition to a discussion of the pros and cons of each man’s bargaining position at the conference, the book includes details of the men’s personal lives and how who they were shaped the way they represented their countries. The British Prime Minister is shown to be extraordinarily energetic and quick witted, but prone to vacillate in his position as he chased public opinion at home. We learn how President Wilson was a highly principled man, but completely inflexible and often arrogant. And we learn how the French Prime Minister focused so single-mindedly on keeping Germany down that perhaps he missed an opportunity to get Europe back up and running again.
The book is divided into chapters for each of the nations or regions that the peace makers tried to set right. There are chapters on the the birth of Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the newly independent Eastern European states. There are chapters on the new Soviet Republic in Russia. There are chapters on China. There are chapters on the creation of Iraq and Jordan. There are chapters on how Turkey was created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. And there is a chapter on an as yet unnamed Jewish homeland.
The range of issues that the conference dealt with were so broad that reading this book will enlighten you to some degree about nearly every conflict in the world today.
If the book has any flaw, it is perhaps its scrupulous fairness to all parties. I admire Margaret MacMillan’s attempt (successful, I think) to put each leader’s decision in context and show how difficult it was to know what the right decision was. The fact remains, however, that the three men who shaped the peace conference set the stage for World War 2 and for the “clash of civilizations” we see today. Living with the consequences, perhaps we have some right to be a little judgmental.