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“Paris 1919” by Margaret MacMillan

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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.

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  • jacques van Damme

    The most interesting part is the well researched motives of each of the players, struggling to find compromises and giving today’s reader a fresh view on the origin of current conflicts.
    Still, I believe the failed peace treaty laid the foundation for WWII. Margaret MacMillan, in her conclusions, states that the treaty wasn’t too harsh on Germany as proven by Germany’s capability to have launched WWII 20 years later and that Hitler’s policies were not just a reaction against the treaty.Whilst that may be true, the more important fact is that a treaty that would have been fairer or at least perceived as such would probably have strengthened Weimar and precluded Hitler from ever having come to power. Even though Fritz Fischer laid the bulk of the responsibility of WWI with Germany, I don’t think it was such a clear cut issue and no forward looking peace treatise should have built on this premise.Still, it’s a very good book and especially the issues round the dissolution of the Ottoman empire were eye-openers.

  • Shannon MacKenzie

    While I think that Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919 is a well researched book, I do feel that there is a definate Anti Soviet bias. As one of many cases in point, the Excerpt on Bela Kun who spent time in a Russian prison camp as well as being beaten up by Hungarian police is made to appear as somewhat of a vain opportunist. Without even knowing the history of the character I feel their is a lot more depth to someone who goes up against any establishment at serious detriment to his own well being.
    She continues to portray the western powers as decent people trying to make the best of a bad situation while those who would be communist are either misguided, desparate or evil. For such a well researched piece of work it’s unfortunate that she has drawn such simplistic and biased conclusions. While this book is filled with what may be very accurate references, the overall result, is a book that is typically, for a large portion of it, anti communist fiction.

  • Jacques Van Damme

    4 years on, I’m more conviced than ever that Versailles was a failed treaty in the sense that it was far too harsh on Germany and wrong in attributing the cause of the war exclusively to Germany. Several historians have recently shed doubt hereon, like Niall Ferguson, and William Mulligan (Cambridge). I disagree with Margaret
    MacMillan that what she calls Germany’s speedy recovery proves that the treaty wasn’t too harsh. The important thing is not hindsight but how people in Germany felt about it at the time and it’s clear that the feeling of unjustice created by this treaty was the main course of Hitler’s rise to power. MacMillan’s book misses this point completely.