Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Were you to ask most historians what event was most consequential for the world today I believe many of them would say World War I. It wasn't just the conflict itself, but the peace that ended it has defined so much of the 20th and 21st centuries. MacMillan specifically focuses on the six month period in 1919 during which the key negotiations took place between Prime Minister David Lloyd George (UK), Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (France), and President Woodrow Wilson (USA). Never have three men been so critical in determining the state of the world. In her introduction though MacMillan says that there was a bilateral relationship between the negotiations at Versailles and conditions on the ground. As much as the 'peacemakers' shaped the map of the world it had to respond to political unrest, revolutions, and shifting military situations in the lands they were sitting in judgement of.

Read how flawed men shaped the modern world

The book is divided into thematic chapters focusing on different countries/regions, and then arranged into a rough chronology. It is an imperfect method. The developments in Yugoslavia profoundly impacted Italy and Italy impacted upon Greece and Turkey. Discussing each in isolation can lose the thread, i.e. because Yugoslavia's gain resulted in Turkey's loss, indirectly. MacMillan puts considerable attention on the personalities and characters of the peace conference. Given the degree to which personal relationships decided the fate of nations this seems entirely appropriate.

Of the Big Three Wilson by far comes off as the worst. In many ways he seemed to blunder into the negotiations at Versailles. His grand notions about how the treaty should be negotiated was not reinforced by basic knowledge of the world. His vague commitments led to substantial misunderstanding. When Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles betrayed the Fourteen Points it triggered outrage across the world from China to Germany. This was further complicated by the fact that America was a late entrant into the war and France and the United Kingdom had made commitments to allies that Wilson had no interest in keeping.

The blame, or perhaps more appropriately the responsibility, of Versailles and its accompanying treaties should not be laid exclusively at the feet of the Allied leaders. At several points the events on the ground dictated their approach. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not the intent of the Allies. They quickly embraced the successor states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but how to respond to Austria and Hungary was a source of major consternation. This was made even worse when Hungary fell briefly to a Bolshevik coup. The Allies had no notion of how to deal with Russia or the Ottomans either, and to a lesser extent, Germany. They did not foresee the collapse of these empires.

While it is commonly thought that the Treaty of Versailles led to World War II MacMillan takes a slightly different tact. It seems to me that MacMillan suggests that the negotiations, not the treaty itself, led to resentments, political changes and demographic tensions the helped set the stage for the Second World War. It's a fascinating approach. The evidence is clearest for Italy. Italy was the fourth of the Big Four and often maligned by its allies. It sought imperial gains out of the war which the other three rejected. The port city of Fiume in particular became a point of contention and a rallying cry for nationalists and the proto-fascist movement. Japan learned from the experience that they could not expect fair treatment from the European Powers and so instead sought to create their own path in Asia going forward. Germany's ham-fisted treatment by the Allies radicalized moderate elements and gave rise to the myth that Germany was never defeated and delegitimized key aspects of the Weimar government. However, MacMillan says that the terms for Germany were not as harsh as common history would have one imagine. Her evidence is the fact that Germany violated the spirit of the treaty immediately and quickly began rebuilding for the next war well before Hitler came to power.

The consequences of Versailles and the other treaties are still evident across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It is incredible how much can be traced back to the First World War and the treaties that ended it. MacMillan's writing is clear and accessible, though an understanding of the underlying geography and the First World War would greatly aid the reader. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in the subject, diplomacy, 20th century history, and current events.

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