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Review of MacMillan's "Paris 1919"

Margaret MacMillan's book is subtitled "Six Months That Changed the World" and was published in 2003 by Random House. Someone reports to Amazon.com reviews that "This book is highly interesting due to the rich detail in which the author relates the history of the peace-making after World War I." The book has the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 at its center but describes developments before and after, including developments in China, the Balkans and the Middle East.

MacMillan's Paris 1919 is popular as history books go. As of today it has 339 customer reviews. Someone writes that the book is "not only excellent reading, but also has the potential to reshape the way a reader views current events." Someone else writes that the book "essentially reflects a British interpretation of the treaty of Versailles."

Whatever MacMillan's bias, she describes the major blunder of the conference in detail. The French delegation, led by Geogi Clemenceau, wanted to remove Germany as a military threat. Many of us believe that the best way they could have done that was with a settlement that was fair to the Germans. Instead, Clemenceau contributed to a settlement that was to prove futile for France.

Clemenceau and the British blamed Germany for a war that the Germans believed they had fought in self-defense. (The Germans were invaded by both Russia and Russia's ally France. Germany had stopped its move against France until they had learned that France was indeed intent on attacking Germany. Germany ended on French soil rather than the French on German soil because Germany was superior militarily.)

MacMillan describes "most Germans" as believing their country had "surrendered" on the understanding that President Wilson's Fourteen Points (his peace terms and blueprint for world peace announced in January 1918) "would be the basis for the peace treaty." Germany had become a republic, which Wilson had wanted. The Germans were looking forward to Wilson's principle of self-determination working for them, including "German Austria being allowed to decide whether to join its German cousins."

Instead, many the peace treaty outraged the Germans with a clause of war guilt, impossible reparations and put many German communities under foreign rule. France was to control the Saar and Germany lost control over Danzig. The peace treaty was to create among German nationalists a passionate hatred. The treaty was to be a burden on Germany's republic, which signed it, to be labeled as traitors by Adolf Hitler. There probably would have been no World War II had the republic remained in power. Hitler and his National Socialists rose to power propelled in part by hatred for the peace treaty.

Moving to another aspect of the peace conference, Italy, on the side of the allies in World War I, was one of the Big Four at the conference (France, Britain, the US, and Italy), and the Italians were a nuisance. Defying Wilson's Fourteen Points they wanted territory populated by non-Italians, promised them by Britain and France in 1915 as their reward for entering the war. MacMillan writes:

Although both Britain and France subsequently claimed that the agreement was invalid on the grounds that it depended on Russian consent (which did not come because of the revolution), the Italian government insisted that it was still owed its share o Asia Minor.

Italian nationalists called on the memory of the great Roman empire to bolster their claims.

It was the same spirit of nationalistic grandiosity that was to propel the fascists to power in Italy in the early 1920s – as it would German fascism in 1933.

MacMillan's book describes nationalistic ambition and wars in the Balkans regarding where national boundaries should be drawn. End of the Habsburg empire in 1919 contributed to the problem. Ethnicities dispersed and mixed across the Balkans made the question of borders difficult and the creation of ethnic minorities within borders inescapable.

And there was Japan's insistence on holding on to power in China's Shantung peninsula, where Germany had ruled. The Paris Conference awarded Shantung to Japan, and this intensified Chinese hostility to the settlement, and hostility to Wilson, and among the Chinese it inspired an alternative to Wilson: the Bolshevik leader, Lenin.

Regarding a sense of accomplishment at Paris, MacMillan writes:

The peacemakers in 1919 felt that they had done their best but they had no illusions that they had solved the world's problems. As he left Paris on June 28, Wilson said to his wife, "Well, little girl, it is finished, and, as no one is satisfied, it makes me hope we have made a just peace but it is all in the lap of the gods."

Pope Benedict XV described the settlement better than Wilson. He had been opposed to a dictated peace and described the treaty as a "consecration of hatred" and a "perpetuation of war."

MacMillan is kinder toward President Wilson than was Maynard Keynes, who attended the peace conference, and kinder than I was in my world history.

MacMillan's book, in my opinion, provides enough detail to make it a good source of knowledge about the settlement and early 20th century history. I agree with D. Cloyce Smith, who in 2004 wrote to Amazon.com:

Fortunately for the reader, however, it matters little whether or not you agree entirely with the categorical nature of her underlying thesis. "Paris 1919" is the type of "big picture" narrative history that is both enlightening and engrossing, and it must be regarded as the now-definitive work about the Treaty of Versailles.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.