Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World - Richard Holbrooke, Margaret MacMillan I rarely give out five stars--that's deliberate--but this is so illuminating on a complex topic without being dry, I think it deserves full marks. The book treats of "six months that changed the world"--the Paris Peace Conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles. I was taught in high school that the vindictive terms of that treaty were ruinous to Germany and at the root of Hitler's rise and the outbreak of World War II. It was a view popularized by John Maynard Keynes (who was involved in the peace process--as was Winston Churchill. There were some interesting and unexpected players in this story.) MacMillan makes the case it was by no means so simple. That among other things, that especially since the terms were never really enforced, you can't really blame the treaty for what would happen over the next decades. I think what really astonished me about the peace conference though was just how many fingers were in how many pies. Yes, some developments such as establishment of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were fait accomplis by the time the conference started, but it was largely this conference, and especially the "Big Three" of France, Britain, and the United States who drew the borders. And not just of Europe, but in Africa and the Middle East as well, and we're still dealing with the messy after effects. To take one example, Iraq was created from three different provinces of the recently defunct Ottoman Empire and drawn to suit colonial ambitions of the British and French--not along historical lines or reasons of ethnic cohesion. Roots not just of World War II, but Greek/Turkish, Jewish/Arab, Bosnia/Serb, Chinese/Japanese conflicts can be traced back here. It's all very complicated, and it's a very, very long book (around 600 pages) but part of what makes it digestible is that MacMillan breaks it up regionally, following say the personalities of the newly emerging Yugoslavia and following up on its ultimate fate and how it was affected by those six months in 1919. I think it also escapes being dry due to how well drawn are the various personalities involved. MacMillan deals with many of the leaders from the newly emerging states, but her primary focus is on the leaders of the Big Three: Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of Britain. Wilson seemed from the portrait painted here a dangerous mix of naive and stubborn. His precious League of Nations became an idee fixe that overrode all other issues. If there was a problem with the deals emerging, it seems Wilson would wave it away with the idea the League of Nations would fix it. At the same time, his stubborn inflexibility, his dogmatism and partisanship doomed the acceptance of the League and the Treaty back in the United States. And those very ideals, particularly "self-determination" as enunciated in his 14 Points, raised unrealistic expectations and caused bitter disappointment. Clemenceau comes across as vengeful and vindictive towards the Germans. At the same time, given what MacMillan detailed of France's losses in the war, and its geography that didn't put a channel, let alone an ocean, between it and Germany, Clemenceau's determination to keep Germany weak is understandable. I got less of a fix on Lloyd George. Some called him "vacillating" and "unprincipled" according to MacMillan. He seemed the opposite of Wilson--much more pragmatic. But without the kind of guiding principles or clear goals of Wilson or Clemenceau, he did seem more indecisive. He seemed all over the map--oftentimes quite literally. I think there's really no more fascinating time than the outbreak of World War I and it's immediate aftermath. I can't think of a period of more stark, abrupt change. The end of the war marks the real end of the 19th century, whatever the dates. Visual and performing arts, literature, music made radical breaks--you can even see it in modes of dress. MacMillan illuminates an important part of what shaped that era.