Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World Info

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National Bestseller
New York Times
Editors’ Choice
Winner of the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize
Silver Medalist for the
Arthur Ross Book Award
of the Council on Foreign
Relations
Finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book
Award

For six months in 1919, after the end of “the war
to end all wars,” the Big Three—President Woodrow Wilson,
British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges
Clemenceau—met in Paris to shape a lasting peace. In this landmark
work of narrative history, Margaret MacMillan gives a dramatic and
intimate view of those fateful days, which saw new political
entities—Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Palestine, among them—born
out of the ruins of bankrupt empires, and the borders of the modern
world redrawn.

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Reviews for Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World:

5

Mar 08, 2012

What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan's intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan's intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. MacMillan disputes that this narrow view was the main and sole weakness of the Conference, as will be discussed below.

When the Peace Conference was convened, its chosen heads—America, Great Britain, France, and Italy—took it upon themselves not only to negotiate a lasting peace, but to solve many of the geographic disputes of small nations or cultural groups. The only caveat required to present a plea the ‘Big Four’ was that a group must justify how they were supporters of the victors throughout the Great War. Ostensibly led by American President Woodrow Wilson, the Big Four sought to re-draw the world in such a way as to create calmness and ensure the vanquished were left with little. MacMillan weaves an extremely detailed explanation of how the world changed and what the Big Four did by slashing a pen across a map they could not bother to examine. It is clear that Wilson wanted a League of Nations—a world parliament of sorts—drawn-up along the lines of his key Fourteen Points to save the world. While noble, the attentive reader can see that even a century ago, American leaders were big on the ‘my plan only’ mindset, even if it did not take into account many of the world’s nuances. Still, as MacMillan argues, Wilson saw benefit in reshaping the world, as it was surely ‘broken’ and needed injection of new perspectives. This idea permeates throughout the book as MacMillan shows how, over a six-month period, many of the world’s disputes were heard and ruled upon, though not always in a way that would foster lasting peace. The Middle East was doled out like the spoils of a poker game, decided and bid on by the Big Four, but forgetting history or ethnicity. The Ottoman Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were picked apart, leaving a carcass unrecognisable by geography or ethnicity. Like putting bees in a jar and hope they will learn to be amicable.

MacMillan pulls no punches in her book. None of the Big Four are safe from her harsh criticism at one point or another. She lays out her facts (I am not naive enough to think that she is not writing from her own angle) and then lets the reader see the fallout. Telling not only of the presentations by delegations, but also the inner fighting between the US, UK, France, and Italy, MacMillan shows how decisions were not simply agreed upon over a bottle or two of wine. Peering into the lives of these four men and their apparent infallibility, we see just how human they are.

MacMillan does a masterful job presenting the history in this piece. She weaves together a ton of information and organises it so that the reader can readily understand what is going on. With brief, but poignant, biographies of the Big Four leaders, she sets the scene before offering up some chronological narratives about the goings-on in Paris. Giving each country their own chapter, MacMillan thoroughly explores their plights, asks, and the eventual decision reached, which can sometimes pave the way for the cognizant reader to see the modern reverberations of these actions. A thorough tome if ever there was one, MacMillan is a master at telling her story and uses a preponderance of evidence to back up the claims she makes throughout, leaving the reader to decide how closely they align with her arguments. While hindsight is always crystal clear, I can see the glaring errors that have come from these decisions in the winter and spring of 1919. Shattered states that I grew up seeing dissolve were born in the geographic biology labs of Paris in 1919. Imagine such a Conference now and how truly impossible it would be. Six months with the major leaders sitting down, mostly uninterrupted, and hashing something out as thoroughly and intricately as the re-organisation of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I cannot fathom this ever happening again. But, perhaps this is why it was such a tragedy at the time and that history has shown the disaster it became. MacMillan does not try to soften the blow, as the world has surely become more chaotic because of the Paris Peace Conference. I just wonder if we’d have been better off without any attempts at gluing the world together in 1919 and what it would look like a century later.

Splendid job, Ms. MacMillan. Great to see a Canadian present such a fabulous piece of analysis as it relates to a profound bit of world history. Kudos and much praise.

This book fulfils Topic #3: A Tragic Tome, part of the Equinox #5 Reading Challenge.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:
http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/... ...more
4

Oct 31, 2013

“For six months in 1919, Paris was the capital of the world. The Peace Conference was the world’s most important business, the peacemakers its most powerful people. They met day after day. They argued, debated, quarreled and made it up again. They created new countries and new organizations. They dined together and went to the theater together, and between January and June, Paris was at once the world’s government, its court of appeal and its parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes. “For six months in 1919, Paris was the capital of the world. The Peace Conference was the world’s most important business, the peacemakers its most powerful people. They met day after day. They argued, debated, quarreled and made it up again. They created new countries and new organizations. They dined together and went to the theater together, and between January and June, Paris was at once the world’s government, its court of appeal and its parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes. Officially, the Peace Conference lasted into 1920, but those first six months are the ones that count, when the key decisions were taken and the crucial chains of events set in motion. The world has never seen anything quite like it and never will again.”
- Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

I once read that the most fascinating aspects of World War I – from a historical perspective – were its beginning and its end. It might have been Churchill who said it, but so many things are attributed to him that I can’t be sure. Whoever said it, it certainly feels true. The start: the shocking assassination of an unloved heir of a creaky empire, shot in a Balkan backwater, his death somehow touching off a world war. The end: the peace to end all war, monarchies toppled, empires disintegrated, boundary lines redrawn. Certainly, the majority of war-literature resides in these bookend events.

In 2011, I vowed to learn all I could about World War I. At the time, I still had three years before the centenary, and figured that was plenty of time before a new glut of WWI studies arrived on bookshelves. Perhaps it will not surprise you how badly I underestimated how long it would take. The time went somewhere (let me know if you find it), and I never got much farther than the opening guns.

One of the better books I read about the lead-up to the Great War was Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace. With wit and insight, she provides all the context you need to prepare yourself for the contradictions and complexity this subject. It is therefore heartening that she also took the time to write about the war’s denouement.

Paris 1919 covers the six months of the Paris Peace Talks that followed the Armistice. The talks were dominated by the victorious Allies, especially the Big Three of Great Britain (represented by Prime Minister David Lloyd George), France (represented by Premier Georges Clemenceau), and the United States (represented by President Woodrow Wilson).

Perhaps the best word to describe this half-year process is thorny. As in reach-for-the-bottle-opener-because-this-is-a-wine-night kind of complicated. Any attempt of mine to summarize the results of the Treaty of Versailles would ultimately fail, and undoubtedly have you reaching for wine yourself.

The geographical changes alone are mind boggling. Germany was stripped of its gains from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, lost Alsace-Lorraine, and had to cede parts of Upper Silesia. They also had to recognize the newly-independent nations of Czechoslovakia and Poland. This is a lot of reshuffling, and that’s only a small part of the worldwide redistricting. Trying to keep it all straight requires familiarity with the many different maps, from many different time-periods. (In other parts of the world, the death of the Ottoman Empire saw the remaking of the Middle East, including the creation of Iraq).

Most people are at least a bit familiar with the German-centric portions of Versailles. They know about the stab-in-the-back myth, the restrictions on military buildup, and on the reparations payments. (Much has been made of the payments, but MacMillan comes down on the side that says the reparations weren’t nearly as onerous as contemporary German propaganda, or John Maynard Keynes, would have you believe).

Paris 1919 spends a great deal of time on Germany, for obvious reasons, but its purview goes far beyond that one nation. Methodically, region by region, MacMillan covers the reach and ramifications of the eventual Treaty of Versailles. She has chapters devoted to Russia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czechs and Slovaks, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, China, Greece, Palestine, and Turkey. Each one of those nations had its own negotiator, with his own set of priorities, priorities that inevitably came into sharp conflict with those of his neighbor.

All the wrangling, horse-trading, and chicanery is head spinning. It also is very reductive. The men involved in these processes were not always (or even often) great men of talent and foresight. More often, they were fueled by greed or grudges, by a desire for power. Sometimes they pouted. Literally pouted. History was used as a cudgel, though that history itself was often in dispute. Countries sought to use Versailles to heal (or avenge) the slights of centuries past.

Inevitably it was the commoner who suffered while the kings moved their pieces. Every decision in Paris, large or small, affected thousands of people. Millions of people. It affects them still.

MacMillan’s thoroughness and completeness are laudable. It comes, however, at the cost of some clarity. She writes with an on-the-ground perspective that, for long stretches, eschews a broad overview of what’s going on. Often, I found myself in the conundrum of being unable to see the forest for the trees. That is, I’d be in the midst of a dense and detailed chapter, and by the end of it, I would be a bit unsure of what’d been accomplished.

As in The War that Ended Peace, MacMillan is at her best when tethering her story to strong personalities. The driving forces in Paris were the leaders of the victorious triumvirate of America, Great Britain, and France: Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. Of these three, Wilson looms largest. A complex, contradictory man:

Wilson remains puzzling in a way that Lloyd George and Clemenceau…do not. What is one to make of a leader who drew on the most noble language of the Bible yet was so ruthless with those who crossed him? Who loved democracy but despised most of his fellow politicians? Who wanted to serve humanity but had so few personal relationships? Was he, as Teddy Roosevelt thought, “as insincere and cold-blooded an opportunist as we have ever had in the Presidency?” Or was he, as Baker believed, one of those rare idealists like Calvin and Cromwell, “who from time to time have appeared upon the earth & for a moment, in burst of strange power, have temporarily lifted erring mankind to a higher pitch of contentment than it was quite equal to?”

Wilson wanted power and he wanted to do great works. What brought the two sides of his character together was his ability, self-deception perhaps, to frame his decisions so that they became not merely necessary, but morally right. Just as American neutrality in the first years of the war had been right for Americans, and indeed for humanity, so the United States’ eventual entry into war became a crusade, against human greed and folly, against Germany and for justice, peace and civilization. This conviction, however, without which he could never have attempted what he did in Paris, made Wilson intolerant of differences and blind to the legitimate concerns of others. Those who opposed him were not just wrong but wicked…

There are many reasons to dislike Wilson. He was a prejudiced man with serious race problems, and his notion of “self-determination,” which sounds so noble and just, was never meant to apply to non-whites. (Colonialism did not end at Versailles). At the same time, the notions underlying the League of Nations and his Fourteen Points were breathtakingly ambitious, a rare historical moment when a leader at a particular point in time tried to change the fabric of the universe. It inspired people from around the world.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28, 1919 – the anniversary of Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which touched off the whole mess – is rightly remembered for its failures (both actual and perceived, the perception being as important as the reality). The geographical reorganizations, the indemnities, and the indignities touched off a parade of horribles that lasted into the next century. It sowed World War II, Vietnam, wars in the Balkans, and perennial Middle Eastern instability. It separated people who should’ve been together, and crammed together those who should’ve been separate.

No one, of course, set out to accomplish a near-total disaster. MacMillan’s excellent, elegantly written book does a masterful job of showing just how bad can be good intentions. ...more
4

Dec 18, 2008

Do you know what I hate? I hate it when I find out that something I have known for years and years is not actually true. As a case in point, take the Treaty of Versailles. I hadn’t really thought about it all that much, but if asked I would have said that it would have most likely come out of a peace conference and that peace conference would have been held at Versailles. I know, I can be terribly literal at times. I also would have guessed that the conference might have lasted a few days, maybe Do you know what I hate? I hate it when I find out that something I have known for years and years is not actually true. As a case in point, take the Treaty of Versailles. I hadn’t really thought about it all that much, but if asked I would have said that it would have most likely come out of a peace conference and that peace conference would have been held at Versailles. I know, I can be terribly literal at times. I also would have guessed that the conference might have lasted a few days, maybe a week – maybe two weeks, tops.

What peace conference lasts for six months and has virtually all of the leaders of all of the major powers in the world attending for the whole time?

I was a little concerned when this started and said that the US, unlike other powers of the day, had no interest in taking anything from anyone else and was purely an unequivocal force for good. You might be able to say something like that at the end of a series of lectures, but saying it at the start simply takes away any hope of objectivity. The odd thing was that I didn’t really come away feeling that the US had been an unequivocal force for good – in fact, Woodrow Wilson comes across as a partisan fool. I had no idea the US was not in the League of Nations and that this could largely be attributed to Wilson despising Republicans so much as to alienate those who might have supported such a move.

MacMillan has set herself a huge task here – and that is to look at this peace conference (The Paris Peace Conference) at the end of the First World War and to show how all too many of the problems facing the world today had their origins at this time. The problems she outlines are perennials like the Israel and Palestinian question, Iraq, Communism in China and Russia, nation states in Central Europe and the rarely harmonious Balkans. All of these can trace either their origins or at least some horrible push along their fatal path from this time.

One of the consequences she doesn’t agree with is that this Peace Conference, and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in particular, were the cause of the Second World War – typical, really, as this was about the only consequence I thought I knew.

The lecture on German reparations is fascinating. I had always just thought it was received wisdom that the sheer onerousness of the reparations was what inevitably led to Hitler and Co. But MacMillan challenges this view and I think rather successfully. She points out that the Germans at the time sought to make the ‘reparations’ sound much worse than they actually were. Also, she points out something else I didn’t know – that Germany didn’t actually make many payments. I really do need to read more about this period – but if Germany was not making any reparation payments it might be going a little far to say that they caused an onerous burden on them that brought about the next war.

I had thought that everyone knew why the First World War began – but apparently this is a question that is vigorously debated and is therefore highly controversial and inconclusive. If that is the case then it does seem a little bit of a stretch to make Germany the monster in the whole affair.

I also didn’t know Italy was quite so powerful at the time and knew little or nothing about Greece and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. To be honest, I feel like someone who thought they knew quite a bit about a period of history and suddenly have discovered that I know next to nothing about it.

The Australian Prime Minister of the time – Billy Hughes – also rates more than one mention. A traitor to the Labor Party and a racist pig; it is hard not to loath him, and he comes out of this series of lectures particularly loathsome.

This review makes me sound quite ignorant, and that is probably fair, although at least I did know New Zealand is on this side of Australia – which is more than could be said for the British Prime Minister at the time. My ignorance would seem to be of much less moment.

This was a time when many seeds were being planted. At the time it was probably impossible to know quite how these seeds would develop (or the monsters some would turn into). All the same, what becomes clear is that racism played a remarkable role in world affairs at the time and that the victims of racism generally were more than able to spot when and how they are being patronised. Their response over the years has been the cause of much trouble. This is a lesson that we have repeatedly failed to learn– compare and contrast with Iraq (let’s just have it as one country – it will be easier to administer that way), Yugoslavia (ditto) or China (let’s chop it into lots of bits ruled by foreigners, it will be easier to administer that way). The US policy of National Determination as the core belief to direct the way forward was much more likely to be applied in Europe – where at least the people had the good sense to be white – than in China, India, Indochina, Africa – where the people couldn’t even get that right.

It is too easy to believe that what is now has always been – but it is important to remember that many of the nation states in Europe are remarkably recent and that people did not necessarily immediately rush to become citizens. Nationalism is one of the things I dislike most in the world. With so many nations coming into being at the time (Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Soviet Russia) and so many others being less than a hundred years old (Italy and Germany), and others disappearing (Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tzarist Russia, Soviet Hungary), it does seem strange to me that nationalism would have taken such a tight hold on the world quite so quickly. But then, people do like to belong.

The myth is that after the First World War there were reparations and this brought about the Second World War which ended with the Marshall Plan where everyone was treated fairly and therefore peace and love reigned supreme. In fact, it seems neither of these might be true, as after the Second World War, according to Wikipedia, “John Gimbel comes to the conclusion, in his book Science Technology and Reparations: Exploitation and Plunder in Postwar Germany, that the "intellectual reparations" taken by the U.S. and the UK amounted to close to US$10 billion, equivalent to around US$100 billion in 2006 terms.”

This is a wonderful introduction to this period and something that has whetted my appetite for more.

If there is one criticism it is a general one with the Modern Scholar lectures – and that is the stupid idea of saying stuff like, “Following the lecture a student asked …” This is so clearly false and set up. I’ve been to lots of lectures and am yet to hear a coherent and germaine question asked following any of them. If they are going to pretend there are students asking questions following the lectures they should at least make it realistic and ask something about Global Warming or Quantum Theory perhaps.

...more
4

Oct 17, 2013

Paris 1919 reviews the worldwide geopolitical situation in the aftermath of WWI. From Western Europe to Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia, from the Near East to the Far East, endless conflicts and national aspirations are examined through the lens of The Paris Peace Conference. The war and its resolution set the foundation for the rest of the century. Paris 1919 immensely improved my understanding of not just this period, but all of twentieth century history.

Detailing the meetings, Paris 1919 reviews the worldwide geopolitical situation in the aftermath of WWI. From Western Europe to Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia, from the Near East to the Far East, endless conflicts and national aspirations are examined through the lens of The Paris Peace Conference. The war and its resolution set the foundation for the rest of the century. Paris 1919 immensely improved my understanding of not just this period, but all of twentieth century history.

Detailing the meetings, infighting and prognostications of politicians and statesmen can make for some dry reading. Macmillan digs into the personality quirks and personal behaviors of the participants to maintain interest. One of the difficulties Macmillan faces is that unlike many popular histories, the Paris Peace Conference with its diverse scenarios does not readily lend itself to a novel-like storyline.

The reader clearly feels Macmillan’s personal judgments, right or wrong, in her depictions of the world’s leaders. Her characterization of the irascible and witty Clemenceau is kindly and not without charm. Woodrow Wilson comes off as naïve and arrogant and Lloyd George as a wily pragmatist, the ever-present politician. Wilson pontificates on his 14 points and puts forth The League of Nations and self-determination as the answers to the world’s problems. Lloyd George and other world leaders use Wilson’s proclaimed right of self-determination as cover to advance their own countries’ ambitions. Wilson’s principles become the currency of doublespeak.

The fairness of Wilson’s doctrine is undercut by the impossibility of determining what defines a group entitled to self-determination. Is it ethnicity, religion, language, community, economic interdependence, common history? The new nations formed after WWI invariably cut across many of these boundaries creating instability. Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau dictate national boundaries based on the presentations of diplomats they like, their own nation’s interest or simple prejudice. Further undermining the fairness of their decisions is the established and accepted racism of the time. Non-European peoples were considered inferior and less than capable of providing for their own futures by the Western European and US powers. Wilson’s self-determination theme also feeds rising nationalism as old empires disappear or fall into decline. Sadly that nationalism frequently ends up turning into further subjugation of the weak and vulnerable.

Macmillan portrays the peace treaty and new arbitrary national boundaries as the outcome of negotiations by ill prepared self-serving politicians who could not see the impact of their decisions on a rapidly changing world. The French are driven by fear of Germany and their perceived necessity to dismantle it, disable it or at least divide it up. Germany remained intact and the French fear turned out to be well founded. The British want to maintain and extend their empire and ensure that Germany is strong enough to make its reparation payments and absorb British trade. The French, Italians and Japanese are similarly concerned with empire building, trade and keeping their competitors at bay. Wilson is always the professor with his vision of a world at peace driven by his League where everyone works for the common good. All are afraid of the Bolsheviks but clueless as to what to do about them.

I took exception to Macmillan’s choice of words regarding Germany’s behavior in the war. She writes, “Germany had invaded neutral Belgium, and German troops, to the horror of Allied and American opinion, had behaved badly. (Not all the atrocity stories were wartime propaganda).” The Germans went far beyond just “bad behavior” with a policy of extreme brutality to civilians, propaganda notwithstanding. Belgian civilians were systematically used as hostages and thousands were killed in mass executions by German soldiers. Entire towns were burned down and tens of thousands expelled from their homes. One hundred thousand Belgians were packed into boxcars and shipped off to forced labor in Germany. These atrocities did pale in comparison to Turkish genocide of the Armenians in the war, but in WWI the Germans set a precedent with their “bad behavior” that Hitler would later extoll as virtuous and increase exponentially in WWII.

Was the Versailles treaty responsible for WWII? The author says no and I agree. My take is that the Germans would not have been satisfied with any treaty the allies could have offered because they believed that they did not start the war nor did they lose it. They felt that they were defending themselves against Slavic aggression and France being aligned with Russia had to be taken out. Belgium, being in the way, had to be taken out too. The war ended without allied armies entering Germany. The vast destruction of the war took place in France and Belgium. Germans did not feel that the allies had defeated them but that they had been undermined from within. Jews, communists and liberals would become convenient scapegoats. Germany maintained its strong nationalism. Its industry and military were steadily rebuilt in spite of the treaty. Nothing had been settled. Add in a world-wide depression and Hitler to stir the stew and we have WWII. Probably only a breakup of Germany as the French wanted would have prevented WWII.

Paris 1919 is a great resource and very rewarding but does require effort to get that reward. A solid knowledge of geography is a huge help. Be ready to consult the maps. Highly recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of all of twentieth century history including why Germany was fertile ground for National Socialism, why Asia was ripe for Japanese exploitation and why places like Kosovo and Iraq ended up becoming familiar names. ...more
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Apr 21, 2009

This review originally appeared on my blog, Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books.

Paris 1919 focuses on the peace conference that took place at the end of the First World War (known as the Great War, then, since they mercifully didn’t know yet that it would need a number). After all was quiet on the western front in November 1918, the Allies sent representatives to Paris to negotiate the peace terms for the defeated enemy nations and clean up the aftermath of the war. Dozens of nations showed up at the This review originally appeared on my blog, Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books.

Paris 1919 focuses on the peace conference that took place at the end of the First World War (known as the Great War, then, since they mercifully didn’t know yet that it would need a number). After all was quiet on the western front in November 1918, the Allies sent representatives to Paris to negotiate the peace terms for the defeated enemy nations and clean up the aftermath of the war. Dozens of nations showed up at the conference that famously started with Wilson’s declarations that all decisions of the conference should be “open covenants openly arrived at,” and ended with all of the decisions being made behind closed doors, solely by the Big Three: Lloyd George of Britain, Wilson of America and Clemenceau of France.

And there was a hot mess of things for them to sort out. Let’s list just a few of them, shall we?: Two enemy empires that had been clinging to life for decades had collapsed (The Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary), and their constituent parts were either occupied, lawless, or being de facto claimed by various pop-up governments of various radical persuasions. Germany was poor, beaten, waiting in ill-concealed panic for their punishment to be decided on (apparently there was quite a desperate last-ditch Dionysian/nihilist orgy of a party going on throughout the country). Russia was absent from the proceedings, consumed by civil war, its communist ideas already spreading across the continent. There were arguments to be sorted out in the Far East between Japan and China, and a Middle East that everyone was just starting to covet now that it became clear that this oil thing was going to be a big deal. Not to mention that the governments of all the Big Three had vengeful and unhappy publics and oppositions at home who could dissolve their governments at any time if they didn't like how things were going.

Macmillan takes us through all of these problems thematically, each chapter dealing with one of these regions of the globe where the war had created some sort of chaos that needed to be dealt with. Overall, the content is very good. It combines description of the ebb and flow of diplomatic negotiations with often colorful analysis of the people involved, and shows us all the possibilities of what could have been in each situation and then slowly narrowing it down to why what actually happened ultimately came to pass. We get the standard coverage of the Fourteen Points and The Treaty of Versailles. (Presented, as always, as basically “Big Fat Liars” and the “Big Fat Failure”.) In short: here's the glowing place we supposedly started with all these grand promises and pure words about self-determination, and here’s how it really went. Vengeance and anger and destruction and backdoor deals and the gift to Hitlerian propaganda of the “war guilt” clause. Here’s some ominous music and some pictures of young Hitler holding rallies and the Nazi symbol rising over Nuremberg and it’s all their fault.

Macmillan does this part dutifully. Her major deviation from the standard text is that she believes interwar politicians to be ultimately responsible for World War II and, “the Treaty of Versailles is not to blame” for Hitler. Which of course is true in a banal sort of way, but I found to be a rather bland conclusion. The sort of thing that sports announcers say when somebody misses a crucial catch at the end of the game, and then they remind us that it was a team effort that got them in that position to begin with. True, and in many ways, very kind, but come on now- that missed catch sure as hell helped to seal the deal.

But there were fascinating parts, and they were, in short, everything else. First of all, I loved reading about the other little wars and simmering resentments that the Conference helped ignite. I was fascinated to hear about the sad tale of the little country of Albania, its line-on-a-map birth and the hapless German prince who was put in charge of it before the war and the laughably terrible way its fate was sorted out later. How a local Italian right-winger seized control of the port of Fiume and helped to make it an unlikely symbol of Italian nationalism, even helping to bring down the government rather than hand it over to Yugoslavia or Bulgaria. When boats of functionaries and soldiers from the western democracies watched from their boats and did nothing as Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist army burned and looted the town of Smyrna, with Greeks leaping into the sea and drowning to avoid the flames.

It was these brushfires and aftereffects that fascinated me, not only because many of them were the obvious foundations for later troubles that were to surface throughout the twentieth century, but because they were so unintentional and accidental. They were the clearest proof that the men who had put themselves in charge of fixing the world with at least outward “self-determination” principles knew absolutely nothing about the politics or identify frameworks of the people they were dealing with (and sometimes disregarded it even when they were told- Wilson sent out an inquiry commission into Ottoman lands whose report on Arabian peoples’ desire for independence was illuminating- and entirely ignored). It was fascinating to see the particularly ineffective and insincere mixture of self-interest, political compromise and good intentions (not to mention fait accompli conditions on the ground) that characterized the settlements- no one seemed to be able to pick an organizing principle that worked and stick with it (aside from perhaps the nakedly power grabby Italians or the one note "whatever you want as long as we kick Germany in the balls" French).

The second important thing that came to light, especially if you read a lot of chapters straight in a row, was my frustration with Wilson. Of all the major figures at the conference, he put both himself and the reputation of America in the toughest spot. With his Fourteen Points he raised the hopes of people around the world- open covenants openly arrived at, settlements for some of the most difficult regions, disarmament to minimum levels, free trade, and of course, the most popular one, self-determination. Of course, the most difficult thing to sort out was always what “self determination” meant.(For whom? To what degree? What is a legitimate basis for asking for “self-determination”? How do we determine that someone “belongs” to a group and should be placed with them? What if we can’t?). Wilson himself could not answer these questions.

But you really get a sense of how many people Wilson disappointed with failure to follow through with his Fourteen Points. Chapter after chapter after chapter of countries and governments who came to the conference counting on America to save them, to give them a country, to protect them from their neighbors, free them from colonial oppression, and country after country, future leader after future leader, found themselves walking out of the conference feeling personally betrayed by the promises that they felt Wilson had made and broken. He held out hope to a lot of people who needed it and then seemed to slowly crush it as he got a crash course in the realities of international politics and the imprecision of his own language. This is the beginning end of the global currency of the idea of American exceptionalism, as far as I’m concerned, we just haven’t gotten the message, about a century later.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed the time out that Macmillan took to humanize the conference participants, and the effort that she made to understand (most of) their perspectives. My favorite part in history books tends to be when historians make me hear their voices like they’re in the room with me. David King, of one of my favorite history books, Vienna 1814, is a master of this. Macmillan also definitely has her moments. One of my favorite chapters is the one about the midwinter break of the conference, which she lets herself have a little fun with the extracurricular amusements going on around the official events. She also does some pretty devastating character sketches of various conference attendees, showing herself a fine student of the great British diplomatic histories that have this talent (Cooper’s Talleyrand is my other favorite that does this). There were some great stories about the Big Three arguing with each other, Lloyd George and Wilson’s delegations forming a little insular group among their English-speaking selves, and there were great stories about people who would later be famous making an appearance at the conference (a young Foster Dulles, for example, and Churchill and FDR also were both there at various points, Keynes was also there begging for easier economic terms for the Germans, something that ultimately made him quite famous at home and helped to secure some German sympathizers in the UK), and of course the sort of off-color stuff you never expect to hear and always do about the heroes of history books (TE Lawrence throwing toilet paper rolls down the stairs at Lloyd George and joking about bombing Paris with Prince Feisal, Clemenceau showing Lloyd George’s daughter pornographic pictures after a party, the offhand way both the British and French insulted the Italians all the time- “The Italians,” wrote Balfour wearily, “must somehow be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to mankind.”).

But there were some elements that still fell short for me: First, the book’s organization. The thematic nature of it will be useful to professors, but I suspect that I was far from the only reader who might have liked a more chronological approach, showing just how chaotic the conference was. I don’t think we got a really good sense of how much was going on at once, and therefore how many of these decisions were made unbelievably quickly or off-hand, as well as how many of these decisions were interlocked with each other. We needed to see more about how power worked. Secondly, there were some poor editing issues. Macmillan’s style became haphazard at times, and she would toss in an anecdote where it made no sense, and had difficulty with transitions and segues. This needed one more pass with an editor who could make things flow like the amazing, page-turning story this should have been.

Finally, of course, please remember that Macmillan has her biases. She is Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter. She can sometimes unconsciously start talking in the language of the peacemakers (her cringe-worthy and frequently repeated claim of countries “awakening to their national identity” is one that stands out), and like any historian, she has her favorites and her people she dislikes (Wilson and the Italians were particular targets of contempt). Harold Nicolson is a major source for her- remember he was a British delegate with his own biases (much as I am fascinated by that whole family). So remember not to swallow this whole.

But ultimately, if you’ve any interest in European history, World War I, any of the major players, or just how the world got so screwed up today, this isn’t a bad place to start. It is a huge subject that Macmillan does her best to tell with as much color and detail as possible while still covering the breadth of topics she needs to get to. She provides us with explicit links to the future, showing us how we got from 1919 to the disasters of… well every other decade. I can’t think of another book that sets you up with a foundation for understanding so much about the politics of Europe and provides you with so many different avenues to explore further, depending on your interest. Which is exactly what a stellar generalist history should do. I’m glad I revisited this and I can see myself pulling it down from the bookshelves to read particular chapters here and there to refresh my mind. It’s an impressive project and, in the end, well worth the owning, and for me, the second chance I gave it. ...more
5

Nov 14, 2015

“The delegates to the peace conference after World War I "tried to impose a rational order on an irrational world.” In Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan scrutinizes the crucial months when the winners of the First World War sat together and determined what the penalty would be for those who dared to lose the war.

The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to have settled the First World War, it further represented a dream that it could end all wars. Far from it, as “The delegates to the peace conference after World War I "tried to impose a rational order on an irrational world.” In Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan scrutinizes the crucial months when the winners of the First World War sat together and determined what the penalty would be for those who dared to lose the war.

The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to have settled the First World War, it further represented a dream that it could end all wars. Far from it, as you learn from reading Paris 1919 and about WWII. Winners set together and determined what penalties losers would have to pay. There were many feelings behind each leader representing the victorious countries, resentments prevailed and motivations were not always praiseworthy or for the best to guarantee peace in Europe in the foreseable future. Thus, it helped to create the conditions that would lead to the Second World War.

I read Paris 1919 after having finished the excellent The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914 (which examines the years leading to the the beginning of WWI). I enjoyed both because in them MacMillan's field of study: the conditions for war and its consequences. More, it was intriguing to read about the role that winners and losers played, or were allowed to play, in its resolution. And how it helped shape the future.

One more for my all-time-favorites list! Recommended for history enthusiasts. ...more
5

Nov 14, 2019

An astoundingly comprehensive and for me fascinating look at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. I listened to an audio version which lasted for 25 hours and 40 minutes. In my case that time was spread out over slightly more than a month.

The book is organised by subject. It begins with a chapter on each of the three leading statesmen, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau. Each country’s settlement is then described separately, so there are discrete chapters on every affected An astoundingly comprehensive and for me fascinating look at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. I listened to an audio version which lasted for 25 hours and 40 minutes. In my case that time was spread out over slightly more than a month.

The book is organised by subject. It begins with a chapter on each of the three leading statesmen, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau. Each country’s settlement is then described separately, so there are discrete chapters on every affected European state as well as on the Middle East and the Far East. This does mean that the chapters get out of chronological order, but on balance I think the author’s decision was the right one. The breadth of issues covered was such that I would have found it nearly impossible to have followed a chronological account, though I concede that might have given a better impression of how the “big three” had to deal with dozens of spinning plates at any one time.

A couple of themes stood out for me. One was that beyond Western Europe, the military position of the Allies was surprisingly weak. The Allies, particularly the British and Americans, started to demobilise their armies straight after the Armistice. Partly this was down to morale - the soldiers felt they had done their duty and wanted to go home. It was also down to cost. France had suffered economic devastation. Meanwhile Britain had spent more money than any other country. These various factors meant the Allies lacked the ability to impose their will on Eastern and Southern Europe, and most of all in the former Ottoman Empire. Over these areas, the Paris Conference was, for the most part, reduced to simply confirming boundaries that had been established locally through force of arms.

The other was the extent to which the peace settlement was defined by realpolitik. Mostly this was a problem for Wilson rather than for Clemenceau or Lloyd George. Wilson had produced his high-minded Fourteen Points and his famous commitment to the principle of “self-determination”. In practice such a principle was almost impossible to apply consistently in the Europe of 1919, where all sorts of ethnicities lived side by side in a way that left it impossible to draw neat boundaries between them. In the end, an overall settlement could only be reached by means of old-style diplomatic horse-trading, with scant regard for “self-determination”.

The author is though, quite generous to the big three, basically arguing that they did their best with an insanely complex set of problems. This leads on to her most controversial argument, which is that the Treaty of Versailles did not lead directly onto to WW2, as many have suggested. I don’t have the space in this review to rehearse the detailed arguments, but essentially her view is that the renewal of conflict in 1939 came about because of decisions taken, or not taken, by the politicians of the leading powers during the 20s and 30s.

I’m always slightly wary of giving five stars to a history book, since any history author provides only one interpretation where many are possible. In this case though, my rating reflects my personal enjoyment of the book as well as my admiration for the author’s scholarship.


...more
5

Jan 01, 2019

Clemenceau did not much like either Wilson or Lloyd George. “I find myself,” he said in a phrase that went round Paris, “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.”

If Guns of August, the historical masterpiece by Barbara Tuchman, is the opening book covering the causes of World War I, then Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan is the equally impressive book to wrap up WWI.

Until I read Paris 1919, I did not fully appreciate the history that led up to the signing of Clemenceau did not much like either Wilson or Lloyd George. “I find myself,” he said in a phrase that went round Paris, “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.”

If Guns of August, the historical masterpiece by Barbara Tuchman, is the opening book covering the causes of World War I, then Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan is the equally impressive book to wrap up WWI.

Until I read Paris 1919, I did not fully appreciate the history that led up to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, nor did I fully grasp how many nations had so much at stake. I had been taught that the treaty and its war reparations eventually led Germany to fall victim to Nazism. MacMillan argues that perhaps the best deterrent at the end of WWI against future German aggression would have been if the Allies had marched all the way to Berlin. This would have shown the German people that they were in fact defeated and it would have been harder for Hitler and the nationalist party to spin their propaganda or at least for it to take root.

There is extensive coverage of the thoughts, negotiations, relations and chatter between Woodrow Wilson, George Clemenceau, and David Lloyd George. For the most part, beyond focusing on these leaders of the U.S., France, and Britain and their efforts to stabilize Europe, this fascinating history also addresses the numerous other nations that were greatly affected by the global catastrophe of WWI.

So this a very comprehensive treatment of the world order in 1919, as viewed during those pivotal months in Paris, with numerous insights around the poor decisions that still haunt the western world today. One of the examples was the abandonment of China by the Allies. Two years later, in 1921, Mao and others founded the Chinese Communist Party. Since the Western world could no longer be relied upon, Communism took root. Another example is, following the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies simply resumed the status quo of their imperialism in Africa. There was only one independent nation in Africa following the war. Another regrettable example is the amount of new territory, much of modern day Turkey, that was given to Greece by the Allies. Greece was a country of barely five million people and they promptly lost half of this newly acquired territory in the next three years.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of poor decision making was the expansion of Armenia and the abandonment by the Allies that led to the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in the following years. The Allies own nationalism and lack of appetite for further war, even one that they could easily quash, was partly responsible for this tragedy.

Paris 1919 is certainly one of the best history books that I’ve read on the aftermath of war. It is impeccably researched and eminently readable. My only mild criticism is that serious students of history might think the coverage a little thin at times. The book is five hundred pages, hardly a quick read, but I found myself wanting to know more about the numerous national heroes and figures mentioned from the more than two dozen nations that were explored.

I found it oddly satisfying to write my first book review of 2019 about a historic event that occurred precisely one hundred years earlier.

Five Stars ...more
4

Apr 07, 2015

If I was going to use one word to describe Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919" it would be "detailed". She includes a multitude of backstories about the delegates and the obstacles they must surmount at the Peace Conference after World War I. The three most important participants were Georges Clemenceau who wanted to protect France from future attacks from Germany, the idealistic Woodrow Wilson who pushed for his Fourteen Points including a League of Nations, and David Lloyd George who was If I was going to use one word to describe Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919" it would be "detailed". She includes a multitude of backstories about the delegates and the obstacles they must surmount at the Peace Conference after World War I. The three most important participants were Georges Clemenceau who wanted to protect France from future attacks from Germany, the idealistic Woodrow Wilson who pushed for his Fourteen Points including a League of Nations, and David Lloyd George who was concerned with the interests of the large British Empire and its naval power. Thousands more joined them in Paris to hammer out agreements, redraw national boundaries, and impose reparations.

Wilson's idea of self-determination raised the hopes of groups in many countries, but it was impossible to implement. The Ottoman Empire and the Balkans especially are composed of a mix of ethnic groups. Self-determination was ignored when dividing the spoils in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

MacMillan divides the book into chapters about individual countries, and wrote detailed accounts of the day-to-day decisions regarding them. While a casual reader would probably prefer a little less detail, a historian would value it. Her research is to be admired, and it gives a real understanding of the various perspectives and the compromises reached. Unfortunately, some compromises resulted in national borders that had no good ethnic or geographical reasons. MacMillan does point out artificial boundaries set up at the Peace Conference that led to more unrest in the future, such as the fighting that is still going on in the Middle East.

She does not blame the Treaty of Versailles for Hitler's rise to power, although she felt he used it as propaganda. She feels that the Treaty of Versailles was not responsible for Hitler's wish to expand the boundaries of Germany, and to destroy the Jews and the Bolsheviks. Overall, the book will give the reader a deeper understanding of the world in 1919. "Paris 1919" also showed the root of some of the animosities that exist today. ...more
3

Aug 28, 2013

"Each of the Big Three at the Peace Conference brought something of his own country to the negotiations: Wilson the United States' benevolence, a confident assurance that the American way was the best, and an uneasy suspicion that the Europeans might fail to see this; Clemenceau France's profound patriotism, its relief at the victory and its perpetual apprehension of a revived Germany; and Lloyd George Britain's vast web of colonies and its mighty navy. Each man represented great interests, but "Each of the Big Three at the Peace Conference brought something of his own country to the negotiations: Wilson the United States' benevolence, a confident assurance that the American way was the best, and an uneasy suspicion that the Europeans might fail to see this; Clemenceau France's profound patriotism, its relief at the victory and its perpetual apprehension of a revived Germany; and Lloyd George Britain's vast web of colonies and its mighty navy. Each man represented great interests, but each was also an individual. Their failings and their strengths, their fatigue and their illnesses, their likes and dislikes were also to shape the peace settlements."

This book functions almost as a sequel to David King's (brilliant) account of the Congress of Vienna, Vienna 1814. The similarities between the two conferences (one following the defeat of Napoleon, the other following the end of World War One) are even acknowledged by the conference attendees themselves: the Congress of Vienna was used as a model when planning the conference in 1919, with the statesmen agreeing that they wouldn't make the same mistakes their predecessors made. This meant looking at the endless parade of parties that made up the Congress of Vienna, shaking their heads, and saying, "Well, we certainly won't be having any of THAT nonsense!", much to my disappointment. (Although there's a funny bit about the peacemakers ensuring that all trash was thoroughly shredded, because at the Congress of Vienna there had been a problem with confidential memos being fished out of wastebaskets) Not that there weren't parties during the Paris peace conference; one just gets the impression that the people involved were more focused more on Serious Political Stuff and less on fighting over mistresses. Boo, I say, but whatever.

The book is organized very well - rather than going in strictly chronological order, MacMillan divides the conference into countries. One chapter will be about Russia, the next about Yugoslavia, then Austria, etc. This clear separation of topics, combined with the fact that the chapters are rarely more than thirty pages each, makes it easy to dip in and out of this book and never get lost. It's a good, solid history of a complicated and influential period in time, and MacMillan gets bonus points for arguing (pretty successfully) that the Treaty of Versailles was not to blame for Hitler's rise to power in Germany following the end of World War One.

Why three stars, then? The problem is that I had read Vienna 1814 before this, and Paris 1919 pales in comparison. King's book succeeded because he focused on the people making the treaties, and spent time showing them as people, not statesmen: the book was full of delightful stories about the peacemakers sleeping around and squabbling amongst themselves, and it was great because it made the reader see that the people making this world-altering decisions were people, warts and all, instead of names in a textbook. MacMillan's book focuses on the policies, not the people making them, and this is to the detriment of the book. The best she can offer us is this passage:

"The Four bickered, shouted, and swore at each other, but they also, even Orlando, teased each other, told jokes, and commiserated. They pored over the maps and even crawled together over Wilson's huge map of Europe, which had to be unrolled on the floor. Lloyd George and Wilson talked about going to church; Clemenceau said he had never been in a church in his life. They compared notes on what upset them. Clemenceau told the others that he was never kept awake by abuse but had trouble sleeping when he felt he had made a fool of himself. Wilson and Lloyd George both knew exactly what he meant. The others listened politely to Wilson's homespun Southern jokes and ventured their own. ...Toward the end of their meetings, Clemenceau asked Lloyd George, 'How do you like Wilson?' Lloyd George replied, 'I like him and I like him very much better now than I did at the beginning.' 'So do I,' said Clemenceau. They shared the loneliness of power, and they understood one another as no one else could."

That's about as human as the "Big Three" ever get. The rest of the time, they're just wooden figures being moved around, and you never really get to see them on a human level. Not that we really need to see them like this - the book succeeds as well-written and easily accessible history even if the people involved remain on their pedestals. But after the masterful way the historical figures were portrayed in Vienna 1814, I could help feeling a little disappointed at how hollow the peacemakers remained in this book. ...more
5

Jan 27, 2008

One of the two best diplomatic histories I've ever read, second only to David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace (also, and probably not altogether coincidently, about the arrogance of the Great Powers and the outcome of WWI). The largely tragic ramifications of the Treaty of Versailles are of course well know, but MacMillan does a masterful job of laying out the process by which the treaty was formed, exploring the complexities -- geographic, political, ethnic -- that faced the victors in One of the two best diplomatic histories I've ever read, second only to David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace (also, and probably not altogether coincidently, about the arrogance of the Great Powers and the outcome of WWI). The largely tragic ramifications of the Treaty of Versailles are of course well know, but MacMillan does a masterful job of laying out the process by which the treaty was formed, exploring the complexities -- geographic, political, ethnic -- that faced the victors in redrawing the map of Europe, and providing vivid portraits of the major players (Wilson's coldness, arrogance, and high-minded naivete; Clemenceau's vengeful streak and love of argument; Lloyd George's cheerful subordination of ideals Right and Wrong to his own political instincts). The major narrative is quite compelling, the minor vignettes that attend it are often fascinating (I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that Ho Chi Minh was there), and I even learned a thing or two about my own family history (I'd never known there was a region of Eastern Europe called Galicia that thought of itself as a cohesive and autonomous entity -- in spite of the fact that my grandparents came from there). A terrific book, and one I plan on re-reading in the not-too-distant future. ...more
0

Dec 05, 2018

“When Marshal Foch heard of the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles he observed with singular accuracy: 'This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.' (Winston S. Churchill)

===============================

The author (a Canadian), is a very good writer and does separate portraits of the main players in Paris, as well as several others, who played some part in the conference.

These are some of what she observes about Woodrow Wilson....

"Wilson remains puzzling in a way that Lloyd “When Marshal Foch heard of the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles he observed with singular accuracy: 'This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.' (Winston S. Churchill)

===============================

The author (a Canadian), is a very good writer and does separate portraits of the main players in Paris, as well as several others, who played some part in the conference.

These are some of what she observes about Woodrow Wilson....

"Wilson remains puzzling in a way that Lloyd George and Clemenceau, his close colleagues in Paris, do not. What is one to make of a leader who drew on the most noble language of the Bible yet was so ruthless with those who crossed him? Who loved democracy but despised most of his fellow politicians? Who wanted to serve humanity but had so few personal relationships?"

"Like Wilson, his second wife, Edna Boiling, came from the South. She did not want to spoil her maid by taking her to London, she told a fellow American, because the British treated blacks too well."

"Wilson had always insisted on the United States being an Associate and not an Ally and that the United States generally acted unselfishly, in its occupation of Cuba, for example. “We had gone to war with Spain,” he insisted, “not for annexation but to provide the helpless colony with the opportunity of freedom.”

Of course, no mention of the more disastrous situation in the Philippines, where the American military ruthlessly crushed a Filipino insurgency, largely to hold on to Manila as a port for U.S. warships and as a base for trading with China (thwarted by the Boxer Rebellion).

Sound familiar?

"He was clear in his own mind that he meant well."

and....

“Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right.”

==============

Though the French prime minister, Clemenceau, looked down on Lloyd George as ill-educated and ignorant of Europe, it's hard to argue with this side of the British prime minister....

"Like Napoleon, Lloyd George had an uncanny ability to sense what other people were thinking. He told Frances Stevenson that he loved staying in hotels: “I am always interested in people— wondering who they are— what they are thinking about— what their lives are like— whether they are enjoying life or finding it a bore.”

Although he was a wonderful conversationalist, he was also a very good listener. From the powerful to the humble, adults to children, everyone who met him was made to feel that he or she had something important to say.

“One of the most admirable traits in Mr. Lloyd George’s character,” in Churchill’s view, “was his complete freedom at the height of his power, responsibility and good fortune from any thing in the nature of pomposity or superior airs. He was always natural and simple. He was always exactly the same to those who knew him well: ready to argue any point, to listen to disagreeable facts even when controversially presented.” His famous charm was rooted in this combination of curiosity and attention."

Certainly more appealing than the personalities of Wilson and Clemenceau himself.

==============

Churchill, prescient again, about what it would take Orwell and Solzhenitsyn to make clear to the West many decades later....

“The essence of Bolshevism as opposed to many other forms of visionary political thought,” Churchill asserted, “is that it can only be propagated and maintained by violence.”

However, many believed that the Russian Bolsheviks would eventually settle down and become bourgeois.

====

"Atatürk was a complicated, brave, determined and dangerous man.....Early on Atatürk developed a contempt for religion that never left him. Islam— and its leaders and holy men— were “a poisonous dagger which is directed at the heart of my people.” From the evening when, as a student, he saw sheikhs and dervishes whipping a crowd into a frenzy, he loathed what he saw as primitive fanaticism.

“I flatly refuse to believe that today, in the luminous presence of science, knowledge, and civilization in all its aspects, there exist, in the civilized community of Turkey, men so primitive as to seek their material and moral well-being from the guidance of one or another sheikh.”

Of course, today in Turkey under Erdogan, we see everything going in the opposite direction.

======

The British and French governments, in a declaration that was circulated widely in Arabic, conveniently discovered that their main goal in the war on Ottomans had been “the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.” Words were cheap. The British were confident that Arabs would willingly choose Britain’s protection. The French did not take Arab nationalism seriously at all.

==========

At the end of November 1918, a dark, handsome young man who claimed, with some justification, to speak for the Arabs boarded a British warship in Beirut bound for Marseille and the Paris Peace Conference. Feisal, descendant of the Prophet and member of the ancient Hashemite clan, was clever, determined and very ambitious. He was also dazzling. he was everyone’s image of what a noble desert Arab should be.

“He suggested the calmness and peace of the desert, the meditation of one who lives in the wide spaces of the earth, the solemnity of thought of one who often communes alone with nature.”

Feisal had declared himself king of the Arabs. Riding at Feisal’s side was his fair-haired, blue-eyed British liaison officer, later to become even more famous as Lawrence of Arabia.

A distinguished scholar and a man of action, a soldier and a writer, a passionate lover of both the Arabs and the British empire, T. E. Lawrence was, in Lloyd George’s words, “a most elusive and unassessable personality.” He remains a puzzle, surrounded by legend, some based in reality, some created by himself. It is true that he did brilliantly at Oxford, that he could have been a great archaeologist and that he was extraordinarily brave.

It is not true that he created the Arab revolt by himself. His great account, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is part history, part myth, as he himself admitted. He claimed that he passed easily as an Arab, but Arabs found his spoken Arabic full of mistakes. He shuddered when the American journalist Lowell Thomas made him famous, but he came several times in secret to the Albert Hall to hear his lectures. “He had,” said Thomas, “a genius for backing into the limelight.”

In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the description of Lawrence’s first meeting with Feisal is epic: “I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek— the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.”

His impressions at the time give a more human Feisal: “He is hot tempered, proud, and impatient, sometimes unreasonable, and runs off easily at tangents. Possesses far more personal magnetism and life than his brothers, but less prudent. Obviously very clever, perhaps not overscrupulous.” That last was equally true of Lawrence.

But, for Britain, the quest for oil would be the driving force, but....

In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together. Basra looked south, toward India and the Gulf; Baghdad had strong links with Persia; and Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria. Putting together the three Ottoman provinces and expecting to create a nation was, in European terms, like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs make one country.

As in the Balkans, the clash of empires and civilizations had left deep fissures. The population was about half Shia Muslim and a quarter Sunni, with other minorities from Jews to Christians, but another division ran across the religious one: while half the inhabitants were Arab, the rest were Kurds (mainly in Mosul), Persians or Assyrians.

Britain did not foresee the problems of throwing such a diverse population into a single state. They were paternalists who thought the British would remain for generations.

Another fascinating portrait in the book is of Getrude Bell (although with some surprises). And, of course, the story of Zionism, the scourge of anti-semitism, and Palestine.

============

As for the results of Versailles....

"When historians look, as they have increasingly been doing, at the other details, the picture of a Germany crushed by a vindictive peace cannot be sustained. Despite its losses Germany remained the largest country in Europe west of the Soviet Union between the wars. Its strategic position was significantly better than it had been before 1914.

In the west, Germany also faced an advantageous situation. France was gravely depleted by the war, unwilling and, by the 1930s, increasingly unable to summon up the determination to oppose Germany. The guarantee from the United States and Britain was worthless after the failure of the American Senate to ratify it.

The Treaty of Versailles is not to blame. It was never consistently enforced, or only enough to irritate German nationalism without limiting German power to disrupt the peace of Europe. With the triumph of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, Germany had a government that was bent on destroying the Treaty of Versailles."

Marshall Foch forecast in 1919 that next time Germany would break through into Northern France and seize the Channel ports as a base of operations against England. Hitler did precisely that 20 years later. ...more
4

Oct 12, 2009

When reviewing a book, it is generally considered good form to review the whole book, not just one chapter or even one page. So, before my descent into bad reviewing form, I'd like to say that this is a fine book about the Versailles Peace Conference, written by a grand-daughter of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. When she tells you that French Prime Minister George Clemenceau during the conference once attempted to interest a young, newly-married daughter of DLG in a bunch of dirty When reviewing a book, it is generally considered good form to review the whole book, not just one chapter or even one page. So, before my descent into bad reviewing form, I'd like to say that this is a fine book about the Versailles Peace Conference, written by a grand-daughter of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. When she tells you that French Prime Minister George Clemenceau during the conference once attempted to interest a young, newly-married daughter of DLG in a bunch of dirty postcards, you can be pretty sure she got it from a reliable source.

Most continental European countries receive attention in separate chapters. Interested as I am in things Bulgarian, I read Chapter 11 with special attention, especially the following about then-Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski:

In June 1923, there was a coup; Stamboliski was killed by Macedonian conspirators who first cut off the hand which had signed the antiterrorist agreement with Yugoslavia.

Desperate as usual for material in my next Bulgarian conversation class, I mentioned this event (only average gruesome by Balkan standards) to my teacher. Not true, she said, the writer must be thinking of Stefan Stambolov (died 1895), a man who shared the following qualities with Stamboliski: was Bulgarian, was Prime Minister a long time ago, died violently for political reasons, was killed by Macedonians, had the same initial seven letters in his surname.

I decided to investigate whether MacMillan made a factual error in the above sentence. (Spoiler: Probably not.)

The footnote associated with the paragraph directed me to Crown of Thorns: The Reign of King Boris III of Bulgaria 1918-1943 by Stephane Groueff and A Concise History of Bulgaria by R. J. Crampton. Groueff mentions the allegation about the hand, and other allegations of torture, but then says

So many political groups wanted to use Stambolisky's [sic] assassination to accuse other factions or to justify future revenge that the complete truth has been obscured. But no matter the differences in the cruel details, the fact remains that Stambolisky was killed in the most abominable way.

Well observed, but inconclusive about the hand. I proceeded to Crampton, pgs. 96 – 98, as mentioned in the footnote. I found that these pages refer to the life and death of Stefan Stambolov. Aha! I thought. Gotcha! Then my long-suffering wife, whose dust I eat in the area of being a Balkan history geek, recalled a photograph of Stambolov lying in his coffin with his severed hands in a glass jar beside it. Double gotcha!

Rather than rushing to publish a libelous screed accusing MacMillan of shoddy research, I felt the need to look into this further. (This is an example of why my career as a journalist went nowhere.) My next stop was History of the Balkans: Twentieth Century by Barbara Jelavich, generally considered to be the gold standard of English-language histories of the region, and also cited by MacMillan as a source elsewhere.

This turns out to be the source of the story about Stamboliski's hand. MacMillan can only be accused of erroneous footnoting. Jelavich says that Stamboliski

was captured by a [Macedonian] band and tortured. His right hand, which signed the Treaty of Nis, was cut off, and he was stabbed sixty times.

What was Jelavich's source? The book has no footnotes, only a bibliography, which includes many obscure old histories which even hard-core Balkan history geeks do not have on hand. So, the trail grows cold. Given the esteem in which the Jelavich book is generally held, I'm willing to take her word for it.

(Also, the fact that two separate Bulgarian Prime Ministers, within the space of 30 years, had their hands cut off before they were killed doesn't strike me as in the least bit odd or revolting, which probably means I've been in the Balkans too long.)

However, the case is far from closed. Hugh Seton-Watson, in Eastern Europe Between the Wars 1918 – 1941 says that Stamboliski

...was then taken by some Macedonian terrorists, who led him back to his home, where they mutilated and tortured him, made him dig his own grave and finally finished him off.

Assuming that Seton-Watson meant to convey that the final grisly activities took place one after another in the order he described, this would tend to indicate that Stamboliski did not have his hand cut off before dying. Even Macedonian terrorists are not short-sighted enough to cut off a man's hand first and demand he dig his own grave second.

In summary, the tale of Stamboliski's hand is a colorful story, illustrative of the cruel and violent nature of Balkan politics. There was enough evidence for a responsible historian to guess that it might be true, so it went into the narrative. If anecdotes are repeated often enough in this way, they become history.







...more
5

Nov 18, 2018

Margaret MacMillan has written a masterful, exceptionally-researched volume on one of history's critical fulcrums, for which she has earned much deserved praise. A few personal reactions are in order, I feel. For some, perhaps undeserved reason, I found myself slogging through this work, about two-thirds of the way in; maybe it was the amount of attention devoted to what seem satellite issues, like the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, the Arab states, Japan, China, and did I mention Turkey? Yes, I Margaret MacMillan has written a masterful, exceptionally-researched volume on one of history's critical fulcrums, for which she has earned much deserved praise. A few personal reactions are in order, I feel. For some, perhaps undeserved reason, I found myself slogging through this work, about two-thirds of the way in; maybe it was the amount of attention devoted to what seem satellite issues, like the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, the Arab states, Japan, China, and did I mention Turkey? Yes, I understand there are important historical consequences that merit the attention, yet I felt tired. I read this work because of an interest in the after-effects of the peace to subsequent German history. Ms. MacMillan addressed my interest in her conclusion, specifically raising the Dolchstoßlegende, the stab-in-the-back myth, and the accounting for war reparations, which, she argues, were relatively insubstantial, despite the popular narrative to the contrary. She writes (p.480):
The final figure was set in London in 1921 at 132 billion gold marks (about £6.6 billion or $33 billion). In reality, through an ingenious system of bonds and complex clauses, Germany was committed to pay less than half that amount. It would pay the remainder only when circumstances permitted, such as an improvement in Germany's export figures. Germany also got generous credit for payments in cash or in kind it had already made, such as replacing books in the Louvain library in Belgium that German troops had burned at the beginning of the war, or for German railways in the territory transferred to Poland. (It tried unsuccessfully to claim the ships scuttled at Scapa Flow.) Even when the payment schedules were revised downward several times, however, the Germans continued to argue that reparations were intolerable. With a unanimity rare in Weimar politics, Germans felt they were paying too much. Germany regularly defaulted on its payments-for the last time and for good in 1932. Orlando had warned of this in 1919, when he said that the capacity to pay was related to the will of the debtor. "It would be dangerous," he added, "to adopt a formula which would, as it were, reward bad faith and a refusal to work."

In the final reckoning, Germany may have paid about 22 billion gold marks (£1.1 billion, $4.5 billion) in the whole period between 1918 and 1932. That is probably slightly less than what France, with a much smaller economy, paid Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In one way the figures matter; in another they are completely irrelevant. The Germans were convinced that reparations were ruining them. If Germany was not prepared to pay reparations, the Allies were not prepared to enforce their will. While the Treaty of Versailles provided for sanctions-specifically, prolonging the occupation of the Rhineland-the Allies had to want to use them. By the 1930s neither the British nor the French government was prepared to do so over reparations or anything else.
A few paragraphs later, she writes (p.482), "The Treaty of Versailles is not to blame" for what ensued in Germany. It's a testament to the power of the German nationalist propaganda machine that followed Versailles, that the punishment narrative lives so strongly today.

I feel a congress of third graders could have concluded a more amicable and lasting peace than the notable politicians dispatched for that purpose. President Wilson, for one, proved himself politically unskilled in his handling of the US Senate; oh, for the days of Lyndon Johnson. I'm left to wonder how things would have turned out in Paris were he not so singularly focused on the League of Nations, a concept which revealed an ivory tower naïveté. ...more
3

Sep 28, 2016

My issue with Margaret MacMillan's books is that, while exhaustively researched and meant to entertain while educating, they always come down to her playing on our gossipy and gleeful natures. With such a riot of information and colorful personalities, most people don't seem to notice, or mind, the tendency of meanness towards not only historical figures but entire nations. Yes, she only ever quotes other's opinions and observations, but there are ways and ways to present a person, let alone a My issue with Margaret MacMillan's books is that, while exhaustively researched and meant to entertain while educating, they always come down to her playing on our gossipy and gleeful natures. With such a riot of information and colorful personalities, most people don't seem to notice, or mind, the tendency of meanness towards not only historical figures but entire nations. Yes, she only ever quotes other's opinions and observations, but there are ways and ways to present a person, let alone a whole group of people, in a manner that paints them with some depth (behind their ridiculous or primitive properties), that's not ridiculing them, or coming down to a single (often demeaning) statement about them. This is something more noticeable with non-Western nations and politicians - she does not spare the Westerners, but there is always an underlying note of fondness for them and their refinement (we are talking here about Western upper class, of course - their unwashed masses aren't  featured much), maybe not as obvious as her veiled disdan for all other primitives, such as Russians and, well, anyone non-Western.
It is too bad, as I do find her book a trove of information.

...more
5

Jun 04, 2019

This excellent historical narrative brings to a close my 5-year project of reading about the events surrounding World War I whose 100th anniversary we celebrated this month with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

It's been quite an experience reading history studies, plays, poems, novels, ordinary soldiers' memoirs, letters and critiques of this central event of the 20th century. The Great War changed everything... and it did not bring a feeling of lasting peace. And the Treaty of This excellent historical narrative brings to a close my 5-year project of reading about the events surrounding World War I whose 100th anniversary we celebrated this month with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

It's been quite an experience reading history studies, plays, poems, novels, ordinary soldiers' memoirs, letters and critiques of this central event of the 20th century. The Great War changed everything... and it did not bring a feeling of lasting peace. And the Treaty of Versailles just set the stage for the rise of Hitler and national socialism. Macmillan's book is really excellent and exhaustive, a great and surprisingly easy read... now I know why so many parts of the world are in turmoil today.

This was the first time in my like that I ever devoted so much time and reading to one particular historical event... and it was well worth it! ...more
5

Jul 18, 2009

I took this book to the beach, which was a mistake. This is not a history to read while surrounded by conversation and general mayhem!!! I finished it when I returned from vacation in the quiet of my home. This history of the Versailles Treaty takes concentration and reflection as it outlines, in detail, the machinations of France, Britain, Italy (sporadic at best) and the United States, as they struggled to author a treaty which was impossible to create.

Countries and colonies were moved like I took this book to the beach, which was a mistake. This is not a history to read while surrounded by conversation and general mayhem!!! I finished it when I returned from vacation in the quiet of my home. This history of the Versailles Treaty takes concentration and reflection as it outlines, in detail, the machinations of France, Britain, Italy (sporadic at best) and the United States, as they struggled to author a treaty which was impossible to create.

Countries and colonies were moved like chess pieces on a world map in an attempt to keep power concentrated with the major players, without regard to the citizens and ethnic groups of the defeated nations. Wilson's main concerns were the League of Nations and his Fourteen Points which skewed the negotiations. Clemenceau wanted revenge for the loss of life, property and honor. Orlando of Italy wanted ports on the Adriatic Sea, and the Welsh Wizard, David Lloyd George, wanted to keep the British Empire intact and protected.

Did this treaty contribute to the rise of the Nazi party and the Second World War? You make the call. Regardless of what you believe about that issue, this book will lay bare the internal (and infernal) workings of the infamous treaty. I highly recommend it. ...more
3

Dec 23, 2013

According to Wikipedia.org, this book argues that the conditions imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles did not lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler. I read the book back in 2003 so my memory of its contents is a bit hazy, but I don’t remember that point being made by the book. What I do remember is that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires caused numerous cases of minority enclaves being surrounded by hostile neighbors. The resulting ethnic cleansing through migration According to Wikipedia.org, this book argues that the conditions imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles did not lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler. I read the book back in 2003 so my memory of its contents is a bit hazy, but I don’t remember that point being made by the book. What I do remember is that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires caused numerous cases of minority enclaves being surrounded by hostile neighbors. The resulting ethnic cleansing through migration (and otherwise) continued to the end of the twentieth century (e.g. breakup of Yugoslavia).

Wikipedia.org also says that David Lloyd George is the author’s great grandfather. I wonder if that influenced the judgment of the author.

I was reminded of this book by the following short review that was on yesterday’s PageADay Book Lover’s Calendar. (Note that the 1st sentence below contradicts Wikipedia's comment regarding the rise of Hitler.)

A dramatic account of the World War I peace accord that planted the seeds for World War II. Woodrow Wilson emerges as a fascinating, broken figure, and the greedy, shortsighted angling of certain key negotiators will keep you turning the pages. Even readers who think they know the story will find Margaret MacMillan’s clear-eyed narrative both enlightening and hair-raising.
PARIS 1919: SIX MONTHS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD , by Margaret MacMillan (2001; Random House, 2003)
...more
5

Feb 21, 2008

I rank this book as one of my favorites because it explained the restitution in which Germany unfairly had to pay. The author explained thoroughly the reason for WWI. The reason was because there was a system of competing alliances. The Serbians were aligned with Russia but under Austrian control. Austria was aligned with Germany and France aligned with Russia. When Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austrian throne, was killed in 1914 by a Serbian separatist the Austrians I rank this book as one of my favorites because it explained the restitution in which Germany unfairly had to pay. The author explained thoroughly the reason for WWI. The reason was because there was a system of competing alliances. The Serbians were aligned with Russia but under Austrian control. Austria was aligned with Germany and France aligned with Russia. When Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austrian throne, was killed in 1914 by a Serbian separatist the Austrians cracked down on the Serbians.

This caused Russia to come to Serbia's aid. When Russia attacked Austria Germany was forced to aid Austria and attacked Russia. The French came to aid of Russia. England joined Russia and France primarily to defeat Germany in order to abolish it's Navy. Germany's Navy at the time was poised to surpass England's Navy.

By 1917 the war had wound down to just England vs. Germany. Germany was about to win but England induced President Wilson into American support. American fresh troops were able to defeat Germany and win the war.

The Treaty of Versailles was the treaty that ended the war and a very bad treaty it was. It dismantled the Austrian and Ottoman empires. It gave Syria and Lebanon to France and Iraq and Palestine to England. The Germans had to give over Alsace and Lorraine to France. Poland was given the German territories of West Prussia and Posen. Large portions of Schleswig to Denmark. The port of Danzig was placed under the control of the League of Nations. As a result of these changes, East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany by what became known as the "Polish Corridor". Germany also had to accept responsibility for the war and pay an unrealistic 6.6 billion in reparation payments. Germany was not allowed to negotiate in the treaty either.

In addition, a bus boy by the name of Ho Chi Min asked to be heard regarding the freedom of his home country Vietnam. He was rebuked by the Conference so he turned to the Soviet Union for help instead. As a result Vietnam became a Communist Country.

Furthermore, the independent country of Tyrol was ceded to Austria and Italy.

Also, The Chinese as a member of the winning side had requested a restoration of its territory that was previously under German control. The Allies however rejected China’s request and transferred Germany’s former Chinese colonies to Japan. China became anti -west as a result.

This blatantly unfair treaty fostered a huge resentment with the German people, as well, which afterwards allowed a vengeful, charismatic, nationalistic,megalomaniac to rise and seek revenge.

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5

Oct 15, 2012

I rarely give out five stars--that's deliberate--but this is so illuminating on a complex topic without being dry, I think it deserves full marks. The book treats of "six months that changed the world"--the Paris Peace Conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles. I was taught in high school that the vindictive terms of that treaty were ruinous to Germany and at the root of Hitler's rise and the outbreak of World War II. It was a view popularized by John Maynard Keynes (who was involved in I rarely give out five stars--that's deliberate--but this is so illuminating on a complex topic without being dry, I think it deserves full marks. The book treats of "six months that changed the world"--the Paris Peace Conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles. I was taught in high school that the vindictive terms of that treaty were ruinous to Germany and at the root of Hitler's rise and the outbreak of World War II. It was a view popularized by John Maynard Keynes (who was involved in the peace process--as was Winston Churchill. There were some interesting and unexpected players in this story.) MacMillan makes the case it was by no means so simple. That among other things, that especially since the terms were never really enforced, you can't really blame the treaty for what would happen over the next decades. I think what really astonished me about the peace conference though was just how many fingers were in how many pies. Yes, some developments such as establishment of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were fait accomplis by the time the conference started, but it was largely this conference, and especially the "Big Three" of France, Britain, and the United States who drew the borders.

And not just of Europe, but in Africa and the Middle East as well, and we're still dealing with the messy after effects. To take one example, Iraq was created from three different provinces of the recently defunct Ottoman Empire and drawn to suit colonial ambitions of the British and French--not along historical lines or reasons of ethnic cohesion. Roots not just of World War II, but Greek/Turkish, Jewish/Arab, Bosnia/Serb, Chinese/Japanese conflicts can be traced back here. It's all very complicated, and it's a very, very long book (around 600 pages) but part of what makes it digestible is that MacMillan breaks it up regionally, following say the personalities of the newly emerging Yugoslavia and following up on its ultimate fate and how it was affected by those six months in 1919.

I think it also escapes being dry due to how well drawn are the various personalities involved. MacMillan deals with many of the leaders from the newly emerging states, but her primary focus is on the leaders of the Big Three: Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of Britain. Wilson seemed from the portrait painted here a dangerous mix of naive and stubborn. His precious League of Nations became an idee fixe that overrode all other issues. If there was a problem with the deals emerging, it seems Wilson would wave it away with the idea the League of Nations would fix it. At the same time, his stubborn inflexibility, his dogmatism and partisanship doomed the acceptance of the League and the Treaty back in the United States. And those very ideals, particularly "self-determination" as enunciated in his 14 Points, raised unrealistic expectations and caused bitter disappointment. Clemenceau comes across as vengeful and vindictive towards the Germans. At the same time, given what MacMillan detailed of France's losses in the war, and its geography that didn't put a channel, let alone an ocean, between it and Germany, Clemenceau's determination to keep Germany weak is understandable. I got less of a fix on Lloyd George. Some called him "vacillating" and "unprincipled" according to MacMillan. He seemed the opposite of Wilson--much more pragmatic. But without the kind of guiding principles or clear goals of Wilson or Clemenceau, he did seem more indecisive. He seemed all over the map--oftentimes quite literally.

I think there's really no more fascinating time than the outbreak of World War I and it's immediate aftermath. I can't think of a period of more stark, abrupt change. The end of the war marks the real end of the 19th century, whatever the dates. Visual and performing arts, literature, music made radical breaks--you can even see it in modes of dress. MacMillan illuminates an important part of what shaped that era. ...more
4

Nov 06, 2017

So many incredible things happened during this time period. I recall as a student being told that one should learn from history so we don't repeat mistakes. The current politicians and those pretending to be really need to read this tomb and take to heart the lesson that if holds.
5

Oct 20, 2015

If reading 900 pages on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the making of the Treaty of Versailles doesn't seem like your idea of a good time, I'm here to tell you how wrong you are. Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" is sensationally good. Not in that, "whew, thank god I'm done - at least I learned something" kind of way, but in that "Damn, I'm done - and there's so much still I want to know!" kind of way. This book is never boring, but does such a great job If reading 900 pages on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the making of the Treaty of Versailles doesn't seem like your idea of a good time, I'm here to tell you how wrong you are. Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" is sensationally good. Not in that, "whew, thank god I'm done - at least I learned something" kind of way, but in that "Damn, I'm done - and there's so much still I want to know!" kind of way. This book is never boring, but does such a great job encapsulating not just the six months that went into the Paris Peace Conference but the six months that might just have been the most impactful months of the entire 20th century.

The one - and probably only - thing that people know about the Treaty of Versailles today is the notoriously harsh terms it exacted on the defeated German state. Not only does MacMillan up end the traditional belief that this treaty was responsible in large part for Hitler's rise and the events leading up to WWII, but she also fills us in on many of the other far reaching effects that the Paris Peace Conference was responsible for. I was listening to a podcast the other day with Michael Weiss, Senior Editor at The Daily Beast and author of "Isis: Inside the Army of Terror" when my ears pricked up. Weiss was discussing the impact of the Sykes-Picot agreement, made in 1916 during the Great War but validated in large part by the 1919 Paris peacemakers, and its impact on ISIS! Yes, these events are being felt even today! It really is amazing how the modern world starts making so much more sense when viewed through the events of 1919.

And the stories! Much like Margaret MacMillan's equally excellent "The War That Ended Peace" (about the events leading up to WWI), "Paris 1919" has an absolutely charming fly-on-the-wall quality about it that really does fascinate. Take this story MacMillan shares with us in Chapter 25: The Greatest Greek Statesman Since Pericles. Much like today, in 1919 it was customary to hire a representative to "lobby" politicians on your or your country or organization's behalf. So it was with the Albanian delegation in Paris. In an attempt to lobby the Americans - in the hope of influencing President Wilson's position on the Balkan country's borders - Albanian expats hired a Hungarian diplomat to help make their case. As it turns out, this otherwise charming aristocrat had a peculiar quirk. His main passion in life, and the subject of all his conversations, had to do with the tooth structure of dinosaurs. Talk about a transition! "Say, Milos, what are your thoughts on the peace conference?" "Why, just fascinating! Almost as interesting as the teeth of a stegosaurus!" Stranger than fiction indeed!

It is stories like this one that makes "Paris 1919" such a delight to read and Margaret MacMillan such a wonderful, informative guide. I highly recommend it, for amateur historians and non-fiction readers alike. You'd be hard pressed to find a better - or more informative - read! ...more
4

Sep 15, 2014

Margaret Macmillan gives an incredible account of one half of am important year. That year, 1919, was both a historical and horrible year at the same time. For centuries the foreign policy of nations had been in the Metternichian school of realism based on the `balance of power' and the winner taking the spoils. 1919, however began with the birth of new kind of foreign policy: idealism. Wilson and his fourteen points were to rewrite the rules of old and bring forth a more just foreign policy. No Margaret Macmillan gives an incredible account of one half of am important year. That year, 1919, was both a historical and horrible year at the same time. For centuries the foreign policy of nations had been in the Metternichian school of realism based on the `balance of power' and the winner taking the spoils. 1919, however began with the birth of new kind of foreign policy: idealism. Wilson and his fourteen points were to rewrite the rules of old and bring forth a more just foreign policy. No longer were international conflicts about the strong prevailing over the weak in the anarchy of nations, the old ways were to be replaced with sensible law and order with justice as the prevailing principle. These efforts ended in failure.

In some ways it was not Wilson's fault. Political realism is called that for a reason. Europe had a long history, far longer than his United States. The Ottoman Empire first rose to power after finishing off the Byzantine-Romans in 1453, almost forty years before Christopher Columbus went on his first voyage. Now that Empire was going to die after centuries of decline. Arguing over who deserved to own what after centuries of war, conquest, and re-conquest, was not going to be an easy task for anyone involved.

Macmillan takes her reader on a guided tour through this year exploring the war torn parts of the globe area by area. She explains to the reader the basic needs of each interest in the conflict. Many liked Wilson's ideas, even if they had a hard time understanding them.

"Of all the ideas Wilson brought to Europe, this concept of self-determination was, and has remained, one of the most controversial and opaque. During the Peace Conference, the head of the American mission in Vienna sent repeated requests to Paris and Washington for an explanation of the term. No answer ever came. It has never been easy to determine what Wilson meant." (p.11)

Many who argued `self-determination' in Eastern Europe had a hard time understanding their `natural country' may not be as big as their history told them it should be.

The German Empire had gone to war against the Allies. Upon Germany's defeat the Kaiser was overthrown and a Republic established. It would have been in everyone's best interest if the new Republic were welcomed with open arms by victorious nations. History took a different turn. France was angry wanted revenge, not just its lost provinces restored--that was going to happen--but France wanted to see Germany humiliated. France wanted Germany to have to pay reparations and accept sole responsibility for the cause of the war.

It was absurd to suggest that Germany was the sole power responsible; it wasn't even the first to declare war. However, France had to pay reparations when Prussia humiliated her in 1870. That was when the German Empire was established with Wilhelm I as Kaiser. France could not take the defeat and deposition of Kaiser Wilhelm II, grandson of the Wilhelm I, as revenge enough. They had to have revenge on the German people is well. The Third French Republic and its allies set the German Republic up to fail.

"In the dark days of 1917, when the French armies had been shattered on the Western Front and there was and there was talk of collapse at home, Clemenceau the Father of Victory, as the French called him, finally came into his own. As prime minister, he held France together to final victory. When the Germans made their last great push toward Paris in the spring of 1918, Clemenceau made it clear that there would be no surrender. If the Germans took the city, he intended to stay until the last moment and then escape by plane." (p.31)

I have only one complaint about the book. Capitalization. I am sorry but it should be British Empire, Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, etc. Not British empire, Roman empire, and Ottoman empire. I know it is a style now but it is one that I think needs to go away.

Aside from the grammatical style, this is a great book. It takes you from the rooms of Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George[1], and George Clemenceau, to the frontiers of China and everything in between. Chapter 1 of the modern world begins here. Macmillan correctly points out that World War II was not because of the Treaty of Versailles but the history that happened in-between, nevertheless Europe did not receive a good start in 1919.

[1] Even though the author is Lloyd George's great-granddaughter she has an easy time portraying him as another famous commoner said, `warts and all.' ...more
5

Jul 28, 2011

(This is a companion review to David Andelman's "A Shattered Peace," on my bookshelf.)

In reviewing the more recent "A Shattered Peace", I said that Andelman relied too much on sizzle, while Macmillan went for the steak. Since Margaret MacMillan is the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, one might expect that a comprehensive book like this would rely on personalities of the Big Four, and that it might be overly-sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. She does indeed (This is a companion review to David Andelman's "A Shattered Peace," on my bookshelf.)

In reviewing the more recent "A Shattered Peace", I said that Andelman relied too much on sizzle, while Macmillan went for the steak. Since Margaret MacMillan is the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, one might expect that a comprehensive book like this would rely on personalities of the Big Four, and that it might be overly-sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. She does indeed rely on many personal anecdotes, but her exhaustive research and her focus on small, neglected nations in the aftermath off WW1 insures that this book is much, much more. And her conclusion, like that of Andelman, is much more in line with the 21st-century new revisionists that tend to take Wilson and Lloyd George down a peg. She is not afraid to say that Wilson not only was too stuffy and Calvinist to "sell" the League of Nations appropriately to the US Senate, but also that his decisions on structuring the peace treaty were unfair to many small nations. Both she and Andelman are useful foils to Wilson cultists, in concluding that Woodrow Wilson was a rather embarrassing and sad figure in history.

She also is not afraid to chide her great-grandfather, for being a blustering, warmongering occasional imperialist, particularly in regard to Turkey.

She studies regions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in detail, and comes to conclusions that are fair and comprehensive. The only minor quibble I have was her method of taking one region at a time sequentially (which Andelman also does to a certain extent), this taking events out of chronology - we hear about the conclusion of Turkish independence in the mid-1920s, for example, before hearing about Germany signing the peace treaty. Still, if her book had taken a strict chronological stream, it might have been much more confusing, given the chaos surrounding Versailles in 1919.

Those seeking a single comprehensive book on Versailles in 1919 can do no better than Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919." ...more
2

Mar 06, 2009

Margaret MacMillan has done a decent job in identifying and cataloging the events that occurred through out Europe in 1919. However, she falls into the same pit that is evidenced by many European historians who write for the average audience.

Her research is impeccable, but there is little analysis as to how these events actually changed the world other than the occasional one liner. The events are not really tied together by an idea as much as just giving events in a timeline. Perhaps this is Margaret MacMillan has done a decent job in identifying and cataloging the events that occurred through out Europe in 1919. However, she falls into the same pit that is evidenced by many European historians who write for the average audience.

Her research is impeccable, but there is little analysis as to how these events actually changed the world other than the occasional one liner. The events are not really tied together by an idea as much as just giving events in a timeline. Perhaps this is not actually Ms. MacMillan's fault as much as the publisher who changed the title from "The Peacemakers" to "Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World." Perhaps this same flaw is responsible for my next criticism of this book. The viewpoints of this book are mostly those of the 4 powers that decided the provisions of The Treaty of Versailles. The most glaring error is the omission of the German point-of-view and the German response to the treaty, other than anger. ...more

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