on November 1, 2015
This book is an excellent resource for those studying early twentieth century history. It covers all the major topics of the Treaty of Versailles in great detail, and the personalities, as well. MacMillan's main idea seems to be that the Treaty of Versailles, despite how history has remembered it until now, was not the main thrust behind World War Two. It's flaws, of which there were many, did not inevitably lead to Hitler's rise; rather it was the twenty years of decision-making and action in between the two wars that bare the true responsibility. Yes, there were many problems in the treaty, but it was how the main players chose to respond to that reality which determined the course of history. The peacemakers were dealing with a complex dynamic of falling empires, emerging cultures and nationalities, and political, social, and cultural upheaval. They tried valiantly to solve all those problems and come up with a working solution in a new world order of negotiation and self-determination.
Rather then denigrate them, as historians have done for the past 80 years, they should be seen as they were; strong leaders who, despite their own biases and political constituencies, tried to change the world for the better. They weren't perfect; many times their own needs came first; but we should see them as champions of a new era of diplomacy, as far as they were able.
In that sense, MacMillan has presented us a revisionist history of the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath. Perhaps being a great granddaughter of David Lloyd George may have been a driving principal behind her attempt to shine a new and more positive light on the "Big Four" and their proceedings in Paris. I think she's done a noble job, though.
on April 15, 2015
This exceptionally informative and interesting book should be required reading for anyone who watches the news. I occasionally had the sense when reading this book that I finally understood the polictical geography of Europe and it was somewhat different than what I had imagined.
I think that people of my generation perceive the political map of the world as it existed in the years before the Second World War as the default or natural state of affairs--later changes appear to be derivative and somehow less natural. It seldom occurs to us that political boundaries in Europe have been in a continual state of flux throughout modern times. Many of the European political boundaries that existed in the thirties were drawn in the Treaty of Versailles that was negotiated (and sometimes dictated) at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. this book is about the conferernce and how it dealt with the shrinkage of Germany and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, among many other territorial changes in other parts of the world.
The portraits of the principal protagonists (Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando) are entertainingly drawn, and there are excellent cameo appearances by lesser and sometimes exotic figures from around the world. The descriptions of the many peronalities are very entertaining
Here, in no particular order, are some of the conclusions of this work. Wilson's 14 points elevated the tone of moral discourse, increased nationalist aspirations, and was fundamentally unworkable. The patchwork and intermixture of ethnic, linguistic, and religoius groups around the world usually meant that political boundaries could not be drawn without making some groups unhappy. Small countries behaved as selfishly, greedily, and insensitively as larger countries; the same was true for minorities. The major powers adopted a eurocentric view of the world. The Treaty of Versailles represtented compromises among the national self-interests of the victorious countries (weighted by the amount of blood and treasure lost in the war, the importance of the particular issue at hand to one of the four countries concerned, and the amount of the particular country's post-war military power). The French were justifiably afraid of a recovered Germany and everyone was afraid of the Bolsheviks. The English threw in their lot with the Americans. As the conference continued, the amount of influence of its decisions steadily declined with the demobilization of the armies - decisions were sometimes made that were unenforceable or easily reversed by the locals.
The conferees were certainly conscientious. Nevertheless, the complexity of the very many decisions that had to be made defied the limitations of the human intellect. Decisions were sometimes influenced by wishful thinking, ignorance of local conditions, the propaganda of particular groups, the personalities of particular leaders, shocking publicized incidents, and sheer mental exhaustion. In the end, the leaders behaved like policitical and bureaucratic leaders do everywhere when making complex decisions under extreme time pressure - according to an informal mixture of expediency, unexamined preconceptions, mutual social influence and satisfiscing.
For more of my reviews go to http://vernquinsey.weebly.com/
on April 19, 2004
MacMillan (Univ. of Toronto) uses the deliberations surrounding the Treaty of Versailles (together with its adjuncts: Trianon, St. Germain, Neuilly, Sevres, and Lausanne) in several ways. First, she introduces readers to a stellar cast of characters: Lloyd George, the "Welsh wizard"; Clemenceau, the "French tiger"; Wilson, the "American professor"; as well as King Faisal, Lawrence of Arabia, Ataturk, Ho Chi Minh, and even Gandhi. Second, she clearly articulates the intricacies of the welt politik that led up to WW I. Third, she discusses many of the issues that were on the table in 1919 and are still present: Balkan ethnic politics, Europe's relationship with Turkey, Britain's involvement with Europe, tensions in the Middle East. But, most important, 1919 marks the advent of the US as a moralizing force that at once castigated Old World imperialisms while initiating its own self-appointed role as global arbiter of good and evil. Somewhat poignantly, MacMillan closes this study of the aftermath of the "war to end all wars" with two questions: "How can the irrational passions of nationalism or religion be contained before they do more damage? How can we outlaw war?" Well footnoted, referenced, and illustrated with clear maps and intriguing photographs.
on April 18, 2004
Review of British/ Canadian Edition (Title is "The Peacemakers")
That such a narrative history could be feted by the world at large and be a best-seller in the English speaking world speaks volumes about the timeless nature of the search for international peace and, more importantly, the rich writing style of MacMillan. It is a very accessible book and one that should be read by the world's leaders and the general public.
The book tries to cover all aspects the peace conference dealth with. In 500 pages that is hard, but there are chapters on all relevant countries and issues: for every country from China Hungary. Not surprisingly some topics are dealt with better than others. I was a little surprised at the German Treaty. It actually takes up less than 100 pages in this book. There is so much to cover that it is not surprising that one feels a little cheated in details.
A few areas that are covered well is the attitude of Italy and is puerile histrionics at the talks and its boastful stance worthy of its eventual leader Mussolini. Hungary is the real orphan of the treaty with no friends at all. Rumania the great winner despite being on both sides in the war. China and Japan and the nacsent warfare between them boils below the surface with Japan's claims on China and the Shantung Penninsula.
I liked this book a lot, but I thought it was a little blown out of porportion. I have honestly read better history of the early 20th Century (eg. Piers Brendon's "The Dark Valley), but I was still noticably impressed.
In our postmodern world where everyone is a critic judging the problems of yesteryear through the lens of today, this may look like a bunch of stodgy toffs of the leaders of western countries making imperialistic decisions on the broad unshaped territories of the world. MacMillan to her credit rarely judges. She, like most people who read and incredible amount of history, realise that there are rarely good choices devoid of negative consequences. There is only a whole lot of bad choices and an even greater range of worse choices. Even in the establishment of the Palastine Mandate it is hard to see what the eventual outcome would be. If anything the British come across -- again -- as the far-sighted imperialists, ruling indirectly, trying to square the circle between US idealism and French/ Japanese raw territorial aggression. Their experience meant that they usually knew the consequences of their actions. They also had much more of a mature democracy with an independent press that was less willing to give carte blanche approval to the imperial moves of national policy. This contrasts with the French and the Italian press, which were essentially arms of the national policy when needed (some may say this has not changed in the case of Berlusconi).
All in all a great book. worthy of plaudits, but I honestly do not know if it is as great as it is commonly touted to be.
on January 22, 2004
After WWI, the victors, mainly the U.S., Britain and France, had the responsibility to draw a new world order after the fall of the old one, at the Conference of Paris and other conferences thereafter. Possibly frustrating some readers, Margaret MacMillan rightly chose a thematic approach to the issues that the Big Three had to address during the Conference of Paris. MacMillan does a good job making the necessary connections between the chapters so that readers do not lose sight of the big picture. Each theme is so complex that it could be the subject of a book on its own. Paris 1919 can entice readers to know more about this period.
MacMillan clearly shows the disconnect between a peace conference and happenings in the field. Despite the best intentions of the U.S., Britain and France, these countries were often inconsistent in the application of some key principles such as auto-determination and territory swaps, in their desire to reward the victors and punish the losers. Furthermore, the U.S., Britain and France tended to focus on short-term gains without considering long-term implications. Whoever needs convincing on this point can think about Palestine, Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Hungary, to name a few.
Paradoxically, the Treaty of Lausanne that almost complelety wiped out the punitive Sevres Treaty (one of the aftermaths of the Conference of Paris) towards Modern Turkey has been the most successful and the most lasting of all the post-war treaties. Modern Turkey, one of the defeated nations at the end of WWI, successfully rebelled against the respective diktats of the victorious nations and humbled them one by one first on the battlefields and then in the diplomatic arenas. As George Curzon, a British imperial statesman, noted at the end of the conference in Lausanne: Hitherto we have dictated our peace treaties. Now we are negotiating one with an enemy who has an army while we have none, an unheard of position.
Iraq is a current example of how difficult making peace can be compared to winning war. Fair elections, though possibly subpar if organized in the short term, could promote peace in Iraq. These elections could send a strong signal to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike. To the Shiites by making clear that the unjust, past rule of the Sunni minority is over. Elections would help convince the Sunnis and Kurds that in a federal structure they will be their own masters in a wide range of matters. Of course, each community will have to guarantee the basic rights of minorities in their respective entities. The Coalition and Iraqis should find some very useful inspiration in the Belgian Constitution and its implementation laws. The Flemish-speaking majority has coexisted peacefully with the French and German-speaking minorities for many years in a federalist structure while deciding on its own destiny in a wide range of matters that do not interfere with the viability of the Belgian federation. Similarly, the French and German-speaking minorities can preside over their respective future in the same matters without endangering the existence of the Belgian federal state.
on January 5, 2004
If nothing else, Margaret MacMillan's book on the on the World War I peace conference, "Paris 1919", shows exactly how complex, intricate, and convoluted the politics were that began the war and would dictate the post war actions. It's nothing short of amazing how deeply MacMillan probed in order to make the serpentine mess of the Paris Peach Conference accessible to the lay reader. Most people superficially know that the Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh penalties on Germany for World War I and that Hitler used the national anger towards this treaty as his means of rising to power. Of course, that is a gross oversimplification. In truth, the terms of the Treaty were not as harsh as people make them out to be and the language of the treaty made it essentially impotent in enforcing those terms. By the time Hitler had rendered the treaty null and void, Germany had only paid about 10 percent of the reparations they were scheduled to. Discoveries like this are present throughout "Paris 1919".
MacMillan emphasizes the flaws of the Council of Four and how that affected their ability to develop an effect peace accord. France and Italy were the most greedy and demanding members of that Council, yet Italy had never won a single battle and France was saved from utter disaster only by the intervention of the United States in 1917. The other two members flopped as well. British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, frequent demonstrated his lack of political acumen and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was both intractable with regards to his 'Fourteen Points' declaration and nebulous with his definition of what national 'self-determination' meant. With a leadership like this, it's hardly surprising that this treaty became such a debacle. On the other side, the Germans felt their dealings with the Council were quite suspect. For starters, many Germans even questioned if they had lost the war, given that no fighting had even occurred on the German soil prior to the armistice. Second, they felt that the punishments that were to be levied on their country should not be that severe, given that they had expelled the leadership responsible for the aggressive actions that started this war (including Kaiser Wilhelm, himself).
In the midst of the conflicts between the major powers, there were still many issues to contend with and fires that had yet to be put out. While the main body of fighting ended in 1918, different ethnic and geographic skirmishes connected to this war continued well into the 1920's. Turkey and Greece kept fighting for many years after World War I ended. Many of the Baltic States made their grabs for land and influence while also contending with the collapse of the empire of Austria-Hungary. Unnatural nations were built, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Much of this occurred outside the realm of the Council of Four's focus. Then, there is the little matter of the Russian Bolshevik threat and the Japan's Pacific land grab, both of which received scant attention from the peacemakers (except for a brief expeditionary force sent to Siberia with an unclear goals in trying to contain bolshevism).
This is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to the wealth of information MacMillan gives to the reader. At times, the material can seem ponderous, but this is due to some of the subject matter. There is also the tendency of MacMillan to jump around events and briefly get redundant. These are minor quibbles, though, when one considers the rich, brilliant narrative that the author has provided in helping to unlock the mysteries and myths surrounding the peace conference that eventually ensured, as one quipster put it, 'a just and lasting war'.
on January 3, 2004
Macmillan's book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand our world as it is today, now just how it was a century ago. Again and again, the origins of our world today, whether it be Kosovo and Bosnia, the continuing conflict over Palestine, the origins of Iraq, or events over the last 50-60 years in Asia, are informed by the peace conference in Paris in the first six months of 1919.
This is not to say that Macmillan takes the easy way out and blames Versaille for everything that followed, in particular the rise of Nazi Germany; on the contrary, she is explicit that Versailles was nothing more than an excuse for Hitler and in its absence, another would have served as well. But what Macmillan does so well is to show that the roots of our problems today existed in 1919 and show how understanding how those problems were dealt with, for good or bad, after World War I tells us so much about how they can be dealt with, or at least understood, today.
At the same time, this book is simply a good read. As another reviewer pointed out, this is a book about real people, the movers and shakers. Macmillan shows how those real persons, with all their foibles, shaped the great events of the time. It is through her sketches of these real people and their motivations, (not just Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau, but also their supporting cast: Balfour, Curzon, House, Foch, Ataturk, Bell, Lawrence, Faisel, etc. etc. etc.) that Macmillan has generated such a vivid, interesting, and readable tale of some of the most important events of the last century.
on January 2, 2004
Phew. The thirty year long walk away from the fashion of social history, of history from below has finished. Macmillan trumps in the Peacemakers not only through her spellbindingly clear and absorbing prose, but from an energizing demonstration that the most informative history happens when Clio turns her pen onto the big characters, onto the giants who move mountains, the doers, not the talkers. You can't write a page turner on medieval French Peasants. You can't make a truly great book out of the diary entries of Victorian spies and narks. But, as the Peacemakers testifies, you can do it deftly, and brilliantly, with the flavoured correspondence and paper of Paris 1919.
MacMillan's genius consists of locking into the reader's mind the giddy picture of three flawed, idiosyncratic men, Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George, with Orlando, the Italian PM hanging onto their coats, somehow attempting to mould a lasting peace. They might be hunched over maps, arguing over nationalities as if disagreeing over the sharing of sweeties ; it's that pathos, that ultimate realization that these peacemakers were only men that Macmillan brings out.
She makes us accept that Wilson was no King Utopus, but a anxiety prone Presbyterian with little more than the flimsy flag of his fourteen points to guide his deliberations. Clemenceau becomes a sad old fool to be pitied, not derided by cant undergraduate historians who tar him with catch all words such as "revengeful" and "hate-filled". The Clemenceau Macmillan describes is a sad thing, taking absurd amounts of pleasure in organising, entirely of his own accord, the actual signing ceremony of the Treaty of Versailles with the Germans. Lloyd-George too is no bumbler, but a politician being pulled from every side, by his own imperial delegation, by his party loyalties and by the Americans.
In its infinite detail, The Peacemakers affirms the simple truth that historical change needs great figures, whose convictions are not political expedients, bartered willy-nilly but abiding philosophies. So, the figures who excel in MacMillan's study are Wellington Koo, the loyal Chinese representative, who was to spend a lifetime fighting against injustive, who believed in the parameters of international law and Artaturk, who was to turn Turkey into a land of economic prosperity, with a secular dynamic, at peace with its neighbours.
And, like the best histories, MacMillan is unafraid to challenge. For her, conformist views of the Treaty of Versailles are wrong and off the mark. It was no harsh diktat. It was an eminently acceptable peace, which would have been despised by the German nation no matter what the peacemakers had written as to its terms. MacMillan goes a long way to piercing that wretched "war guilt clause" theory that the Big Three heaped all the guilt, because they were a vindictive lot, on Germany. The clause was, in fact, a piece of legalese, to justify reparations, its context warped by acidic German attacks and the writings of lazy historians.
From a mechanical point of view, more maps would have been useful in such a detailed study as a great part of the text was spent discussing those intricate manipulations of borders that the peacemakers had the unenviable task of constructing. But generally, a wonderful read. The book's pitted, irascible ditties - such as the Parisian prostitutes complaining of a downturn in customers once the peacemakers shut of shop - to its commendable refusal to judge the principle players make this one history that we can all enjoy.
on December 8, 2003
I agree wholeheartedly with the positive review others have given Ms MacMillan's book. Regrettably, her analysis and conclusions are superficial, and, although I hesitate to say it, cliches. Yes, indeed, the statesmen and their assistants and experts worked hard and well to redraw the maps of the world; that they ultimately failed in their principal objectives was not merely because other men subsequently made decisions that failed to enforce the treaty. Ms MacMillan writes at length about Great Britain's promises to everyone coming home to roost, whether to the Italians, the Japanese, the Arabs, the Jews, in fact, almost anyone who they perceived could help them win the war. Like the situation famously depicted in "The Producers" success proved their undoing. It was forseeable that the British Empire would become a hollow shell, most particularly in the Far
East, staffed by second-raters, that immediately collapsed when confronted the Japanese army half its size, a mere twenty-three years later. The French collapse in May, 1940, was even more dramatic, and in fact starred many of the same characters. Both the British and the French knew in 1919 that they lacked the resources to enforce a punitive peace, and yet they went ahead with a treaty that was bound to come back to bite them. In 1940, Germany came back with a ferocity that forced France to sue for peace in less than three weeks; and the British barely escaped losing their entire army. That should tell us something about the essential flaws in the Paris accord. Woodrow Wilson's dream, the League of Nations, proved to be a moderate success in the interlude between wars; but again, it provided mostly a forum for conducting routine diplomatic business. In short, Both Britain and France lost their nerve, and that was evident from the moment the fighting stopped. For their part, the Americans early on concluded that they had been played for suckers by the British and the French, and refused to participate in the League, or to assist in maintaining peace in Europe. The Neutrality Act and other restrictive legislation in the late 1930's was a direct consequence of attitudes that were formed by the American public after the war. That judgment was essentially correct, although the response inevitably created a much more dangerous situation than it might have been. Contrast the interwar period with the Cold War, which ended decisively in favor of the West. While some gloated over the Soviet Union's collapse, our government's primary response was to provide economic and political support to its fallen adversary. Could that have been done in 1919, maybe, but no one made an effort to even try. One might have thought that the British were smarter than that; but perhaps it took a virtual defeat to drive the point home.
on December 5, 2003
The book is a wonderful, educating, and also entertaining, as Mrs. MacMillan adds funny quotes said by the leaders. The book shows how the victors were concerned very much with Germany, but when it came to China, Middle East and Japan, they didn't pay much attention. This of course, lead to many of the diasters in the future. But the author does not blame the victors for World War 2. In fact, the author writes ""The final crime," declared The Economist in its special millennium issue, was "the Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms would ensure a second war" That is to ignore the actions of everyone-political leaders, diplomats, soliders, ordinary voters-for twenty years between 1919-1939." (pg.493) While the author is correct in saying that the Peace Conference delegates tried their best to avoid war, I think she maybe a little too generous to the victors. It seems that the victors had in effect set up the board for the moves to be made that lead to World War 2. While they themselves did not make the moves, they set up the pawns, rooks, knights and kings on the board so that the leaders of the 20's and 30's could make the dreadful moves that lead to World War 2. However, as far as facts about the motivations and decisions made, the book can be your bible about the Peace Conference. A great buy and great reading if you like history or political history.