Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

'Without question, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919 is the most honest and engaging history ever written about those fateful months after World War I when the maps of Europe were redrawn. Brimming with lucid analysis, elegant character sketches, and geopolitical pathos, it is essential reading.'Between January and July 1919, after "the war to end all wars," men and women fr...

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Title:Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
Author:Margaret MacMillan
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Edition Language:English

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World Reviews

  • Matt

    What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan's intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the ri

    What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan's intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. MacMillan disputes that this narrow view was the main and sole weakness of the Conference, as will be discussed below.

    When the Peace Conference was convened, its chosen heads—America, Great Britain, France, and Italy—took it upon themselves not only to negotiate a lasting peace, but to solve many of the geographic disputes of small nations or cultural groups. The only caveat required to present a plea the ‘Big Four’ was that a group must justify how they were supporters of the victors throughout the Great War. Ostensibly led by American President Woodrow Wilson, the Big Four sought to re-draw the world in such a way as to create calmness and ensure the vanquished were left with little. MacMillan weaves an extremely detailed explanation of how the world changed and what the Big Four did by slashing a pen across a map they could not bother to examine. It is clear that Wilson wanted a League of Nations—a world parliament of sorts—drawn-up along the lines of his key Fourteen Points to save the world. While noble, the attentive reader can see that even a century ago, American leaders were big on the ‘my plan only’ mindset, even if it did not take into account many of the world’s nuances. Still, as MacMillan argues, Wilson saw benefit in reshaping the world, as it was surely ‘broken’ and needed injection of new perspectives. This idea permeates throughout the book as MacMillan shows how, over a six-month period, many of the world’s disputes were heard and ruled upon, though not always in a way that would foster lasting peace. The Middle East was doled out like the spoils of a poker game, decided and bid on by the Big Four, but forgetting history or ethnicity. The Ottoman Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were picked apart, leaving a carcass unrecognisable by geography or ethnicity. Like putting bees in a jar and hope they will learn to be amicable.

    MacMillan pulls no punches in her book. None of the Big Four are safe from her harsh criticism at one point or another. She lays out her facts (I am not naive enough to think that she is not writing from her own angle) and then lets the reader see the fallout. Telling not only of the presentations by delegations, but also the inner fighting between the US, UK, France, and Italy, MacMillan shows how decisions were not simply agreed upon over a bottle or two of wine. Peering into the lives of these four men and their apparent infallibility, we see just how human they are.

    MacMillan does a masterful job presenting the history in this piece. She weaves together a ton of information and organises it so that the reader can readily understand what is going on. With brief, but poignant, biographies of the Big Four leaders, she sets the scene before offering up some chronological narratives about the goings-on in Paris. Giving each country their own chapter, MacMillan thoroughly explores their plights, asks, and the eventual decision reached, which can sometimes pave the way for the cognizant reader to see the modern reverberations of these actions. A thorough tome if ever there was one, MacMillan is a master at telling her story and uses a preponderance of evidence to back up the claims she makes throughout, leaving the reader to decide how closely they align with her arguments. While hindsight is always crystal clear, I can see the glaring errors that have come from these decisions in the winter and spring of 1919. Shattered states that I grew up seeing dissolve were born in the geographic biology labs of Paris in 1919. Imagine such a Conference now and how truly impossible it would be. Six months with the major leaders sitting down, mostly uninterrupted, and hashing something out as thoroughly and intricately as the re-organisation of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I cannot fathom this ever happening again. But, perhaps this is why it was such a tragedy at the time and that history has shown the disaster it became. MacMillan does not try to soften the blow, as the world has surely become more chaotic because of the Paris Peace Conference. I just wonder if we’d have been better off without any attempts at gluing the world together in 1919 and what it would look like a century later.

    Splendid job, Ms. MacMillan. Great to see a Canadian present such a fabulous piece of analysis as it relates to a profound bit of world history. Kudos and much praise.

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  • Trevor

    Do you know what I hate? I hate it when I find out that something I have known for years and years is not actually true. As a case in point, take the Treaty of Versailles. I hadn’t really thought about it all that much, but if asked I would have said that it would have most likely come out of a peace conference and that peace conference would have been held at Versailles. I know, I can be terribly literal at times. I also would have guessed that the conference might have lasted a few days, maybe

    Do you know what I hate? I hate it when I find out that something I have known for years and years is not actually true. As a case in point, take the Treaty of Versailles. I hadn’t really thought about it all that much, but if asked I would have said that it would have most likely come out of a peace conference and that peace conference would have been held at Versailles. I know, I can be terribly literal at times. I also would have guessed that the conference might have lasted a few days, maybe a week – maybe two weeks, tops.

    What peace conference lasts for six months and has virtually all of the leaders of all of the major powers in the world attending for the whole time?

    I was a little concerned when this started and said that the US, unlike other powers of the day, had no interest in taking anything from anyone else and was purely an unequivocal force for good. You might be able to say something like that at the end of a series of lectures, but saying it at the start simply takes away any hope of objectivity. The odd thing was that I didn’t really come away feeling that the US had been an unequivocal force for good – in fact, Woodrow Wilson comes across as a partisan fool. I had no idea the US was not in the League of Nations and that this could largely be attributed to Wilson despising Republicans so much as to alienate those who might have supported such a move.

    MacMillan has set herself a huge task here – and that is to look at this peace conference (The Paris Peace Conference) at the end of the First World War and to show how all too many of the problems facing the world today had their origins at this time. The problems she outlines are perennials like the Israel and Palestinian question, Iraq, Communism in China and Russia, nation states in Central Europe and the rarely harmonious Balkans. All of these can trace either their origins or at least some horrible push along their fatal path from this time.

    One of the consequences she doesn’t agree with is that this Peace Conference, and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in particular, were the cause of the Second World War – typical, really, as this was about the only consequence I thought I knew.

    The lecture on German reparations is fascinating. I had always just thought it was received wisdom that the sheer onerousness of the reparations was what inevitably led to Hitler and Co. But MacMillan challenges this view and I think rather successfully. She points out that the Germans at the time sought to make the ‘reparations’ sound much worse than they actually were. Also, she points out something else I didn’t know – that Germany didn’t actually make many payments. I really do need to read more about this period – but if Germany was not making any reparation payments it might be going a little far to say that they caused an onerous burden on them that brought about the next war.

    I had thought that everyone knew why the First World War began – but apparently this is a question that is vigorously debated and is therefore highly controversial and inconclusive. If that is the case then it does seem a little bit of a stretch to make Germany the monster in the whole affair.

    I also didn’t know Italy was quite so powerful at the time and knew little or nothing about Greece and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. To be honest, I feel like someone who thought they knew quite a bit about a period of history and suddenly have discovered that I know next to nothing about it.

    The Australian Prime Minister of the time – Billy Hughes – also rates more than one mention. A traitor to the Labor Party and a racist pig; it is hard not to loath him, and he comes out of this series of lectures particularly loathsome.

    This review makes me sound quite ignorant, and that is probably fair, although at least I did know New Zealand is on this side of Australia – which is more than could be said for the British Prime Minister at the time. My ignorance would seem to be of much less moment.

    This was a time when many seeds were being planted. At the time it was probably impossible to know quite how these seeds would develop (or the monsters some would turn into). All the same, what becomes clear is that racism played a remarkable role in world affairs at the time and that the victims of racism generally were more than able to spot when and how they are being patronised. Their response over the years has been the cause of much trouble. This is a lesson that we have repeatedly failed to learn– compare and contrast with Iraq (let’s just have it as one country – it will be easier to administer that way), Yugoslavia (ditto) or China (let’s chop it into lots of bits ruled by foreigners, it will be easier to administer that way). The US policy of National Determination as the core belief to direct the way forward was much more likely to be applied in Europe – where at least the people had the good sense to be white – than in China, India, Indochina, Africa – where the people couldn’t even get that right.

    It is too easy to believe that what is now has always been – but it is important to remember that many of the nation states in Europe are remarkably recent and that people did not necessarily immediately rush to become citizens. Nationalism is one of the things I dislike most in the world. With so many nations coming into being at the time (Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Soviet Russia) and so many others being less than a hundred years old (Italy and Germany), and others disappearing (Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tzarist Russia, Soviet Hungary), it does seem strange to me that nationalism would have taken such a tight hold on the world quite so quickly. But then, people do like to belong.

    The myth is that after the First World War there were reparations and this brought about the Second World War which ended with the Marshall Plan where everyone was treated fairly and therefore peace and love reigned supreme. In fact, it seems neither of these might be true, as after the Second World War, according to Wikipedia, “John Gimbel comes to the conclusion, in his book Science Technology and Reparations: Exploitation and Plunder in Postwar Germany, that the "intellectual reparations" taken by the U.S. and the UK amounted to close to US$10 billion, equivalent to around US$100 billion in 2006 terms.”

    This is a wonderful introduction to this period and something that has whetted my appetite for more.

    If there is one criticism it is a general one with the Modern Scholar lectures – and that is the stupid idea of saying stuff like, “Following the lecture a student asked …” This is so clearly false and set up. I’ve been to lots of lectures and am yet to hear a coherent and germaine question asked following any of them. If they are going to pretend there are students asking questions following the lectures they should at least make it realistic and ask something about Global Warming or Quantum Theory perhaps.

  • Kelly

    This review originally appeared

    , Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books.

    focuses on the peace conference that took place at the end of the First World War (known as the Great War, then, since they mercifully didn’t know yet that it would need a number). After all was quiet on the western front in November 1918, the Allies sent representatives to Paris to negotiate the peace terms for the defeated enemy nations and clean up the aftermath of the war. Dozens of nations showed up at the co

    This review originally appeared

    , Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books.

    focuses on the peace conference that took place at the end of the First World War (known as the Great War, then, since they mercifully didn’t know yet that it would need a number). After all was quiet on the western front in November 1918, the Allies sent representatives to Paris to negotiate the peace terms for the defeated enemy nations and clean up the aftermath of the war. Dozens of nations showed up at the conference that famously started with Wilson’s declarations that all decisions of the conference should be “open covenants openly arrived at,” and ended with all of the decisions being made behind closed doors, solely by the Big Three: Lloyd George of Britain, Wilson of America and Clemenceau of France.

    And there was a hot mess of things for them to sort out. Let’s list just a few of them, shall we?: Two enemy empires that had been clinging to life for decades had collapsed (The Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary), and their constituent parts were either occupied, lawless, or being

    claimed by various pop-up governments of various radical persuasions. Germany was poor, beaten, waiting in ill-concealed panic for their punishment to be decided on (apparently there was quite a desperate last-ditch Dionysian/nihilist orgy of a party going on throughout the country). Russia was absent from the proceedings, consumed by civil war, its communist ideas already spreading across the continent. There were arguments to be sorted out in the Far East between Japan and China, and a Middle East that everyone was just starting to covet now that it became clear that this oil thing was going to be a big deal. Not to mention that the governments of all the Big Three had vengeful and unhappy publics and oppositions at home who could dissolve their governments at any time if they didn't like how things were going.

    Macmillan takes us through all of these problems thematically, each chapter dealing with one of these regions of the globe where the war had created some sort of chaos that needed to be dealt with. Overall, the content is very good. It combines description of the ebb and flow of diplomatic negotiations with often colorful analysis of the people involved, and shows us all the possibilities of what could have been in each situation and then slowly narrowing it down to why what actually happened ultimately came to pass. We get the standard coverage of the Fourteen Points and The Treaty of Versailles. (Presented, as always, as basically “Big Fat Liars” and the “Big Fat Failure”.) In short: here's the glowing place we supposedly started with all these grand promises and pure words about self-determination, and here’s how it really went. Vengeance and anger and destruction and backdoor deals and the gift to Hitlerian propaganda of the “war guilt” clause. Here’s some ominous music and some pictures of young Hitler holding rallies and the Nazi symbol rising over Nuremberg and it’s all their fault.

    Macmillan does this part dutifully. Her major deviation from the standard text is that she believes interwar politicians to be ultimately responsible for World War II and, “the Treaty of Versailles is not to blame” for Hitler. Which of course is true in a banal sort of way, but I found to be a rather bland conclusion. The sort of thing that sports announcers say when somebody misses a crucial catch at the end of the game, and then they remind us that it was a team effort that got them in that position to begin with. True, and in many ways, very kind, but come on now- that missed catch sure as hell helped to seal the deal.

    But there were fascinating parts, and they were, in short, everything else. First of all, I loved reading about the other little wars and simmering resentments that the Conference helped ignite. I was fascinated to hear about the sad tale of the little country of Albania, its line-on-a-map birth and the hapless German prince who was put in charge of it before the war and the laughably terrible way its fate was sorted out later. How a local Italian right-winger seized control of the port of Fiume and helped to make it an unlikely symbol of Italian nationalism, even helping to bring down the government rather than hand it over to Yugoslavia or Bulgaria. When boats of functionaries and soldiers from the western democracies watched from their boats and did nothing as Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist army burned and looted the town of Smyrna, with Greeks leaping into the sea and drowning to avoid the flames.

    It was these brushfires and aftereffects that fascinated me, not only because many of them were the obvious foundations for later troubles that were to surface throughout the twentieth century, but because they were so unintentional and accidental. They were the clearest proof that the men who had put themselves in charge of fixing the world with at least outward “self-determination” principles knew absolutely nothing about the politics or identify frameworks of the people they were dealing with (and sometimes disregarded it even when they were told- Wilson sent out an inquiry commission into Ottoman lands whose report on Arabian peoples’ desire for independence was illuminating- and entirely ignored). It was fascinating to see the particularly ineffective and insincere mixture of self-interest, political compromise and good intentions (not to mention

    conditions on the ground) that characterized the settlements- no one seemed to be able to pick an organizing principle that worked and stick with it (aside from perhaps the nakedly power grabby Italians or the one note "whatever you want as long as we kick Germany in the balls" French).

    The second important thing that came to light, especially if you read a lot of chapters straight in a row, was my frustration with Wilson. Of all the major figures at the conference, he put both himself and the reputation of America in the toughest spot. With his Fourteen Points he raised the hopes of people around the world- open covenants openly arrived at, settlements for some of the most difficult regions, disarmament to minimum levels, free trade, and of course, the most popular one, self-determination. Of course, the most difficult thing to sort out was always what “self determination” meant.(For whom? To what degree? What is a legitimate basis for asking for “self-determination”? How do we determine that someone “belongs” to a group and should be placed with them? What if we can’t?). Wilson himself could not answer these questions.

    But you really get a sense of how many people Wilson disappointed with failure to follow through with his Fourteen Points. Chapter after chapter after chapter of countries and governments who came to the conference counting on America to save them, to give them a country, to protect them from their neighbors, free them from colonial oppression, and country after country, future leader after future leader, found themselves walking out of the conference feeling personally betrayed by the promises that they felt Wilson had made and broken. He held out hope to a lot of people who needed it and then seemed to slowly crush it as he got a crash course in the realities of international politics and the imprecision of his own language. This is the beginning end of the global currency of the idea of American exceptionalism, as far as I’m concerned, we just haven’t gotten the message, about a century later.

    Finally, I greatly enjoyed the time out that Macmillan took to humanize the conference participants, and the effort that she made to understand (most of) their perspectives. My favorite part in history books tends to be when historians make me hear their voices like they’re in the room with me. David King, of one of my favorite history books, Vienna 1814, is a master of this. Macmillan also definitely has her moments. One of my favorite chapters is the one about the midwinter break of the conference, which she lets herself have a little fun with the extracurricular amusements going on around the official events. She also does some pretty devastating character sketches of various conference attendees, showing herself a fine student of the great British diplomatic histories that have this talent (Cooper’s Talleyrand is my other favorite that does this). There were some great stories about the Big Three arguing with each other, Lloyd George and Wilson’s delegations forming a little insular group among their English-speaking selves, and there were great stories about people who would later be famous making an appearance at the conference (a young Foster Dulles, for example, and Churchill and FDR also were both there at various points, Keynes was also there begging for easier economic terms for the Germans, something that ultimately made him quite famous at home and helped to secure some German sympathizers in the UK), and of course the sort of off-color stuff you never expect to hear and always do about the heroes of history books (TE Lawrence throwing toilet paper rolls down the stairs at Lloyd George and joking about bombing Paris with Prince Feisal, Clemenceau showing Lloyd George’s daughter pornographic pictures after a party, the offhand way both the British and French insulted the Italians all the time-

    ).

    But there were some elements that still fell short for me: First, the book’s organization. The thematic nature of it will be useful to professors, but I suspect that I was far from the only reader who might have liked a more chronological approach, showing just how chaotic the conference was. I don’t think we got a really good sense of how much was going on at once, and therefore how many of these decisions were made unbelievably quickly or off-hand, as well as how many of these decisions were interlocked with each other. We needed to see more about how power worked. Secondly, there were some poor editing issues. Macmillan’s style became haphazard at times, and she would toss in an anecdote where it made no sense, and had difficulty with transitions and segues. This needed one more pass with an editor who could make things flow like the amazing, page-turning story this should have been.

    Finally, of course, please remember that Macmillan has her biases. She is Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter. She can sometimes unconsciously start talking in the language of the peacemakers (her cringe-worthy and frequently repeated claim of countries “awakening to their national identity” is one that stands out), and like any historian, she has her favorites and her people she dislikes (Wilson and the Italians were particular targets of contempt). Harold Nicolson is a major source for her- remember he was a British delegate with his own biases (much as I am fascinated by that whole family). So remember not to swallow this whole.

    But ultimately, if you’ve any interest in European history, World War I, any of the major players, or just how the world got so screwed up today, this isn’t a bad place to start. It is a huge subject that Macmillan does her best to tell with as much color and detail as possible while still covering the breadth of topics she needs to get to. She provides us with explicit links to the future, showing us how we got from 1919 to the disasters of… well every other decade. I can’t think of another book that sets you up with a foundation for understanding so much about the politics of Europe and provides you with so many different avenues to explore further, depending on your interest. Which is exactly what a stellar generalist history should do. I’m glad I revisited this and I can see myself pulling it down from the bookshelves to read particular chapters here and there to refresh my mind. It’s an impressive project and, in the end, well worth the owning, and for me, the second chance I gave it.

  • Max

    Paris 1919 reviews the worldwide geopolitical situation in the aftermath of WWI. From Western Europe to Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia, from the Near East to the Far East, endless conflicts and national aspirations are examined through the lens of The Paris Peace Conference. The war and its resolution set the foundation for the rest of the century. Paris 1919 immensely improved my understanding of not just this period, but all of twentieth century history.

    Detailing the meetings, infighti

    Paris 1919 reviews the worldwide geopolitical situation in the aftermath of WWI. From Western Europe to Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia, from the Near East to the Far East, endless conflicts and national aspirations are examined through the lens of The Paris Peace Conference. The war and its resolution set the foundation for the rest of the century. Paris 1919 immensely improved my understanding of not just this period, but all of twentieth century history.

    Detailing the meetings, infighting and prognostications of politicians and statesmen can make for some dry reading. Macmillan digs into the personality quirks and personal behaviors of the participants to maintain interest. One of the difficulties Macmillan faces is that unlike many popular histories, the Paris Peace Conference with its diverse scenarios does not readily lend itself to a novel-like storyline.

    The reader clearly feels Macmillan’s personal judgments, right or wrong, in her depictions of the world’s leaders. Her characterization of the irascible and witty Clemenceau is kindly and not without charm. Woodrow Wilson comes off as naïve and arrogant and Lloyd George as a wily pragmatist, the ever-present politician. Wilson pontificates on his 14 points and puts forth The League of Nations and self-determination as the answers to the world’s problems. Lloyd George and other world leaders use Wilson’s proclaimed right of self-determination as cover to advance their own countries’ ambitions. Wilson’s principles become the currency of doublespeak.

    The fairness of Wilson’s doctrine is undercut by the impossibility of determining what defines a group entitled to self-determination. Is it ethnicity, religion, language, community, economic interdependence, common history? The new nations formed after WWI invariably cut across many of these boundaries creating instability. Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau dictate national boundaries based on the presentations of diplomats they like, their own nation’s interest or simple prejudice. Further undermining the fairness of their decisions is the established and accepted racism of the time. Non-European peoples were considered inferior and less than capable of providing for their own futures by the Western European and US powers. Wilson’s self-determination theme also feeds rising nationalism as old empires disappear or fall into decline. Sadly that nationalism frequently ends up turning into further subjugation of the weak and vulnerable.

    Macmillan portrays the peace treaty and new arbitrary national boundaries as the outcome of negotiations by ill prepared self-serving politicians who could not see the impact of their decisions on a rapidly changing world. The French are driven by fear of Germany and their perceived necessity to dismantle it, disable it or at least divide it up. Germany remained intact and the French fear turned out to be well founded. The British want to maintain and extend their empire and ensure that Germany is strong enough to make its reparation payments and absorb British trade. The French, Italians and Japanese are similarly concerned with empire building, trade and keeping their competitors at bay. Wilson is always the professor with his vision of a world at peace driven by his League where everyone works for the common good. All are afraid of the Bolsheviks but clueless as to what to do about them.

    I took exception to Macmillan’s choice of words regarding Germany’s behavior in the war. She writes, “Germany had invaded neutral Belgium, and German troops, to the horror of Allied and American opinion, had behaved badly. (Not all the atrocity stories were wartime propaganda).” The Germans went far beyond just “bad behavior” with a policy of extreme brutality to civilians, propaganda notwithstanding. Belgian civilians were systematically used as hostages and thousands were killed in mass executions by German soldiers. Entire towns were burned down and tens of thousands expelled from their homes. One hundred thousand Belgians were packed into boxcars and shipped off to forced labor in Germany. These atrocities did pale in comparison to Turkish genocide of the Armenians in the war, but in WWI the Germans set a precedent with their “bad behavior” that Hitler would later extoll as virtuous and increase exponentially in WWII.

    Was the Versailles treaty responsible for WWII? The author says no and I agree. My take is that the Germans would not have been satisfied with any treaty the allies could have offered because they believed that they did not start the war nor did they lose it. They felt that they were defending themselves against Slavic aggression and France being aligned with Russia had to be taken out. Belgium, being in the way, had to be taken out too. The war ended without allied armies entering Germany. The vast destruction of the war took place in France and Belgium. Germans did not feel that the allies had defeated them but that they had been undermined from within. Jews, communists and liberals would become convenient scapegoats. Germany maintained its strong nationalism. Its industry and military were steadily rebuilt in spite of the treaty. Nothing had been settled. Add in a world-wide depression and Hitler to stir the stew and we have WWII. Probably only a breakup of Germany as the French wanted would have prevented WWII.

    Paris 1919 is a great resource and very rewarding but does require effort to get that reward. A solid knowledge of geography is a huge help. Be ready to consult the maps. Highly recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of all of twentieth century history including why Germany was fertile ground for National Socialism, why Asia was ripe for Japanese exploitation and why places like Kosovo and Iraq ended up becoming familiar names.

  • Matt

    - Margaret MacMillan,

    I once read that the most fascinating aspects of World War I – from a historical perspective – were its beginning and its end. It might have been Churchill who said it, but so many things are attributed to him that I can’t be sure. Whoever said it, it certainly feels true. The start: the shocking assassination of an unloved heir of a creaky empire, shot in a Balkan backwater, his death somehow touching off a world war. The end: the peace to end all war, monarchies toppled, empires disintegrated, boundary lines redrawn. Certainly, the majority of war-literature resides in these bookend events.

    In 2011, I vowed to learn all I could about World War I. At the time, I still had three years before the centenary, and figured that was plenty of time before a new glut of WWI studies arrived on bookshelves. Perhaps it will not surprise you how badly I underestimated how long it would take. The time went somewhere (let me know if you find it), and I never got much farther than the opening guns.

    One of the better books I read about the lead-up to the Great War was Margaret MacMillan’s

    . With wit and insight, she provides all the context you need to prepare yourself for the contradictions and complexity this subject. It is therefore heartening that she also took the time to write about the war’s denouement.

    covers the six months of the Paris Peace Talks that followed the Armistice. The talks were dominated by the victorious Allies, especially the Big Three of Great Britain (represented by Prime Minister David Lloyd George), France (represented by Premier Georges Clemenceau), and the United States (represented by President Woodrow Wilson).

    Perhaps the best word to describe this half-year process is thorny. As in reach-for-the-bottle-opener-because-this-is-a-wine-night kind of complicated. Any attempt of mine to summarize the results of the Treaty of Versailles would ultimately fail, and undoubtedly have you reaching for wine yourself.

    The geographical changes alone are mind boggling. Germany was stripped of its gains from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, lost Alsace-Lorraine, and had to cede parts of Upper Silesia. They also had to recognize the newly-independent nations of Czechoslovakia and Poland. This is a lot of reshuffling, and that’s only a small part of the worldwide redistricting. Trying to keep it all straight requires familiarity with the many different maps, from many different time-periods. (In other parts of the world, the death of the Ottoman Empire saw the remaking of the Middle East, including the creation of Iraq).

    Most people are at least a bit familiar with the German-centric portions of Versailles. They know about the stab-in-the-back myth, the restrictions on military buildup, and on the reparations payments. (Much has been made of the payments, but MacMillan comes down on the side that says the reparations weren’t nearly as onerous as contemporary German propaganda, or John Maynard Keynes, would have you believe).

    spends a great deal of time on Germany, for obvious reasons, but its purview goes far beyond that one nation. Methodically, region by region, MacMillan covers the reach and ramifications of the eventual Treaty of Versailles. She has chapters devoted to Russia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czechs and Slovaks, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, China, Greece, Palestine, and Turkey. Each one of those nations had its own negotiator, with his own set of priorities, priorities that inevitably came into sharp conflict with those of his neighbor.

    All the wrangling, horse-trading, and chicanery is head spinning. It also is very reductive. The men involved in these processes were not always (or even often) great men of talent and foresight. More often, they were fueled by greed or grudges, by a desire for power. Sometimes they pouted. Literally pouted. History was used as a cudgel, though that history itself was often in dispute. Countries sought to use Versailles to heal (or avenge) the slights of centuries past.

    Inevitably it was the commoner who suffered while the kings moved their pieces. Every decision in Paris, large or small, affected thousands of people. Millions of people. It affects them still.

    MacMillan’s thoroughness and completeness are laudable. It comes, however, at the cost of some clarity. She writes with an on-the-ground perspective that, for long stretches, eschews a broad overview of what’s going on. Often, I found myself in the conundrum of being unable to see the forest for the trees. That is, I’d be in the midst of a dense and detailed chapter, and by the end of it, I would be a bit unsure of what’d been accomplished.

    As in

    , MacMillan is at her best when tethering her story to strong personalities. The driving forces in Paris were the leaders of the victorious triumvirate of America, Great Britain, and France: Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. Of these three, Wilson looms largest. A complex, contradictory man:

    There are many reasons to dislike Wilson. He was a prejudiced man with serious race problems, and his notion of “self-determination,” which sounds so noble and just, was never meant to apply to non-whites. (Colonialism did not end at Versailles). At the same time, the notions underlying the League of Nations and his Fourteen Points were breathtakingly ambitious, a rare historical moment when a leader at a particular point in time tried to change the fabric of the universe. It inspired people from around the world.

    The Treaty of Versailles, signed in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28, 1919 – the anniversary of Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which touched off the whole mess – is rightly remembered for its failures (both actual and perceived, the perception being as important as the reality). The geographical reorganizations, the indemnities, and the indignities touched off a parade of horribles that lasted into the next century. It sowed World War II, Vietnam, wars in the Balkans, and perennial Middle Eastern instability. It separated people who should’ve been together, and crammed together those who should’ve been separate.

    No one, of course, set out to accomplish a near-total disaster. MacMillan’s excellent, elegantly written book does a masterful job of showing just how bad can be good intentions.

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