Paris, 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan, Random House, 2001, HB $53.00
I came to Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 with a powerful sense of anticipation. I’ve long been convinced that World War I is the seminal event of the last 200 years, and that the psychotic continuums of the 21st century—globalization, ethnic chauvinism and the unbridled and often irrational movements aimed at cultural and political self-determination were invigorated if not invented in its crucible. But I haven’t understood the peace process, the reasons for its failures, or why it, and not the war itself, is blamed for what subsequently happened. The war years redirected the development of technologies toward military ends and refocused the latent political tropes away from social justice to more vicious and sectarian ends. The unresolved traceries of that war are the ideological superhighways of the 21st century, and the general consensus is that the road system for most of them were laid down by the Treaty of Versailles.
The events of 1914-1918 have been thoroughly documented if not always agreed on, by masterpieces like John Keegan’s The First World War, Naill Ferguson’s more incendiary The Pity of War and by dozens of other less encompassing studies. But the peace conference that divided the spoils—mixed as they were—and set the penalties for Germany haven’t seen an over-reaching treatment since C.L. Mee’s The End of Order: Versailles 1919 in 1980, a book that gives away its leanings in the title. Lord Riddel’s 1935 anthology of essays, The Treaty of Versailles and After, has been my other source, and has been dated for fifty years. Perhaps that’s why the most commonly held view of the peace, in Germany and elsewhere, has remained relatively unchanged for nearly 80 years. That view—that the injustices perpetrated precipitated the rise of German Nazi-Fascism and is to blame for the isolation of the Soviet Union and the resulting massacre of at least ten million people under Stalin—is in reality largely the creation of a single man writing a single book in 1919: John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes was a young, dyspeptic British Treasury advisor to the conference and more sympathetic to Germany than nearly anyone in the entourage of the Allies. He quit in disgust—or because he wasn’t being listened to—before the treaty was concluded and published his book just five months later—indicating, at very least, that he had his mind made up by the time the conference began, and most of the book written before he left Paris. Keynes’ role at Bretton Wood helped set the stage for the positive reconstruction of Europe after World War II, but this was in some respects the repayment of a debt. The Economic Consequences of the Peace had had the dual effect of undermining Allied will to suppress German militarism during the 1920s, and of contributing to the helplessness of France and England during the rise of Nazi fascism in the 1930s. At several points in the book, and in her concluding chapter, MacMillan disputes this view, arguing convincingly that the reparations Germany actually paid were negligible and that the Weimar Republic was primarily the victim of its own dim political will.
MacMillan’s strategy in writing about the Paris Conference and its aftermath is determinedly comprehensive without trying to be magisterial. At least in part because she is a woman, her approach is to be thorough without feeling much need to be authoritative. The immense self-confidence required to take on her subject matter, is, in other words, the byproduct of her immense erudition alone. Happily, she also has a writer’s gift for narrative construction, and an astute eye for the telling—and often droll—anecdote. Under her hand, the central figures, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau become believable human beings caught in what was an impossible situation.
Clemenceau, whose intransigence about the League of Nations, along with his open loathing of Germany has most often gotten him tagged as a primary cause of the conference’s failure, gets a startlingly different treatment by MacMillan. Brash and cynical though he was, he was also the only one of the three major leaders who seemed capable of paying attention to the shifting dynamics of the situation, and the one who ultimately made the greatest compromises to keep the process from complete collapse. This despite his country having had nearly all the combat on the Western Front take place within its territory, and having sustained in relative terms far greater casualties than the Germans (mainly a result of German’s superior combat tactics and command structure, but also the result of the incompetence of the Allied generals, whose two military tactics were to plan for a cavalry charge into Germany, and to attempt to trade casualties with Germany in the hope that the enemy would run out of bodies first). Clemenceau, unfortunately, couldn’t convince Wilson or Lloyd George to tour the war zone to see the physical and human damage that had been inflicted on France. Had they done so, and had the other negotiants been regularly reminded of the human and physical destruction within the war zones, the peace might have gone faster—and likely been more harsh for Germany.
David Lloyd George, who is treated as a barely competent dilettante in most accounts, gets off relatively easily, possibly because MacMillan is his great granddaughter. Britain seemed, from start to finish, blithely focused on maintaining naval superiority, and on acquiring Germany’s overseas colonies, as if these somehow adequately compensated for the 900,000 men it had sacrificed. The sole exception to the frequently asinine “pip-pip, tally-ho” attitude of the British, as if the Western Front were a glorified fox hunt that had somehow gone wrong, was the bloody-minded Winston Churchill, whose insistence on greater security was heeded only where the measures were far distant from the home island and involved other people’s troops. In that sense, Churchill became his own heir during World War II. Neville Chamberlain was Lloyd George’s.
U. S. President Woodrow Wilson is given the roughest ride. MacMillan depicts him as inflexible, egomaniacal and barely able to communicate with his own advisors let alone his British and French allies and his enemies, not the least of which were the U.S. Republicans who ultimately opted not to ratify the agreement that might have made the League of Nations a viable construct. Wilson himself was probably his own worst enemy. He was unable to articulate his 14 Points beyond abstraction, and woefully vague concerning the meaning of “self-determination” which he seems to have foisted upon the conference—and subsequent generations—without either a qualm or a clue.
What makes this book, however, is the careful élan with which the supporting cast is drawn, along with MacMillan’s superior grasp of the dynamics. Minor players from the small nations were, in her view, key to that dynamic: The venal Italians, whose narrow agenda was doomed by the very existence of Wilson’s 14 points, were to survive less than three years before Mussolini took power; Eleutherios Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, whose charisma led the Allies into supporting his ill-considered ambitions to become the viceroy of Asia Minor; the remarkable Kemal Ataturk, who saved defeated Turkey from oblivion; the Arab hero Feisal, who wanted rulership over Syria and eventually settled for Iraq, and who MacMillan suggests may have been reciting the Koran to the uncomprehending heads of states at the conference while T.E. Lawrence stated the Arab case from his own understanding; along with many others.
Beyond these were a raft of deliciously drawn bit players, most of them fascinating if depressingly limited by their own blinding self-importance. Most were barely competent; a few were visionary and some outright ridiculous. Other, like the doomed Armenians and Kurds, were simply tragic. From them and from the equally fascinating horde of Allied aides and advisors, MacMillan draws a fabric of such rich and contradictory detail that by it alone readers can recognize that the peace process was doomed by the contrary agendas among the powerful participants: France wanting to ensure a weakened if not humbled Germany; Great Britain with one eye on protecting its edge in naval power and extending the Empire and the other on keeping its partners from getting too much; and the American combination of rigidity and incapacity, with Woodrow Wilson never quite clear about exactly what he wanted, save that the other parties follow the 14 points he himself didn’t understand the implications and limits of. The reality was that the Peace Conference had no chance of success, and one comes away from the book with the sense that it had done about as well as could be hoped.
History ought to be written this way more often. It isn’t, because most historians demand unity and coherence where there isn’t any. What’s marvelous about MacMillan is that she seems to experience little intellectual discomfort when things and people don’t add up. That’s why her book has sureness without forced summary conclusions or an overarching ideology. She seems to operate on a variation of Thomas Carlyle’s notion that history is the study of the actions of great men. She’d likely add three corollaries: a.) not very many men are great, b.) none are great all the time, and c.) each event is the sum total of the fusion of people, their circumstances, and the lightening of their aspirations—mixed together in the black stew of the past.
Is this book worth buying and reading carefully? Absolutely. It is that rare combination of interesting, educative, relevant-to-today and intellectually competent without giving up a thing to fashion.