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An overlooked historical event of importance
on February 17, 2003
This book has so many things going for it. Outside of giving a detailed account of the Paris Peace Conference in the summer of 1919, I learned a great deal about the history of a number of European countries, their relevance toward the war and the Peace Conference (raise your hand if you knew that Armenia had something to do with World War I), as well as many of the key players' personalities and conflicts that they had to reconcile not only within themselves, but for their countries.
I was really taken aback by how many of the decisions by the Paris Peace Conference (ie. "The Big Three," after Japan and Italy were more or less muscled out, of the United States, Great Britain, and France) still resonate today. For example, the decision to move Israelis to Palestine (where there was supposedly, "more land than the Arabs could populate.") and how one diplomat characterized the move as a "great experiment." It is really incredible to think of the power the three heads of each country (Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau) had, not to mention the delicate and potentially dangerous risks they had to balance.
Macmillan does a wonderul job of making potentially dull material interesting. She writes of how the French, eager to bury the Germans no matter what the cost, made sure that the Germans' train ride to Paris (through the heart of Europe and her WWI battlefields and shattered towns) was ridiculously slow in order to allow the Germans to see what "they" had done to Europe. In addition, the French made sure the Germans' signing of the Treaty of Versailles was indeed a most humiliating experience.
An additional incentive to read this book is that I honestly learned more about the actual battles and goings on of World War I through this book than many other dryly written books on the war itself (see John Keegan's "The First World War"). We learn of many independent treaties signed between European countries prior to the war that not only played a part during choosing war alliances, but also in deciding what land should go to who and why after the war was over.
There were two main problems among many other minor ones that weighed on "the Big Three": because Germany was never really "defeated" in World War I (they signed an armistice on November 11, 1918), what was the proper punishment? Should the Allied forces militarily go into Germany and bury the country to the point where they couldn't become a future threat, or should they impose incredibly harsh "peace" sanctions on Germany regarding war reparations, loss of land, and a significant loss of munitions. Obviously, The Big Three opted for the latter. The other problem The Big Three had was that it was hard to draw nation-state boundaries when natives, nationalities, and religions were so spread out throughout Europe. As a result, major European countries (Germany, for example) were forced to deal with minorities that could not be geographically placed, and the result often lead to anti-semitism, extreme nationalism, and death or oppression for many.
The only difference I had with the book was in its conclusion. Macmillan's purpose is to show that the results and the mismanagement of the Peace Conference could not have led to World War II as some historians have claimed. To take on that thinking, Macmillan writes, would be to disregard every move from a diplomat, politician, ambassador, etc. etc. from 1919 to 1939. And while I agree with this assertion, I cannot agree entirely with her claim that had Germany been appeased by "The Big Three" and some of the more harsh penalties not been imposed on the Germans (such as war reparations), that Hitler still would have come to power and carried out his ideas for Germany. From all that I have learned about post-WWI Germany, Hitler's coming to power was a direct result of anger on behalf of the German people due to the harsh "peace" sanctions of the Treaty of Versailles. If you take away essentially what the Treaty of Versailles was attempting to do through its peace sanctions- if you appease Germany - I am led to believe that the German people would have been less inclined to provide a young, angry Adolf Hitler the political platform to stand on. The German people believed the Treaty to be incredibly unfair- and maybe it was - but if you take out the heart of what it was trying to do then, in my opinion, you take out the heart of Hitler's argument (and propaganda) he presented to the German people. Just an opinion.....
A very well-written book whose subject, though nearly eighty-five years behind us, still holds shocking relevance today. While reading this book I often thought of the circumstances some historical figures are put in and the incredible ramifications of how one (or in this case, three) man's decisions can effect millions. I also thought of how different the Conference (indeed, the world) might look today had Teddy Roosevelt represented the United States instead of Woodrow Wilson.
An interesting side-note that you may overlook (located in her bio) is that Macmillan is the great-grand daughter of Great Britain's Lloyd George.