Six Months That Changed the World
by Margaret MacMillan
“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” ― Margaret MacMillan
It was 1919 and the Great War had ended the previous year when, from January to June, the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and the United States met in Paris to decide the outcome of the war they had just won against the Central Powers. This would be difficult, for the Great War of 1914-18 had seen the disappearance of four old multinational empires: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman. The fate of people from places as disparate as Strasburg to Baghdad--hundreds of millions--was to be decided. What should this peace conference consider? A Congress of nations had convened in Vienna in 1815 to reorder Europe after the defeat of Napoleon , but confined itself, like others before it, to adjusting the fates of dynasties and states. The peacemakers of 1919 had also paid attention to principles, promises, public opinion and a fast-changing and unstable political scene. It was a current question whether much of central Europe would follow the direction of the Russian revolution.
The making of the Versailles treaty had early on been written about by two young English participants in the Paris negotiations, who wrote their own accounts of the events. In ''Peacemaking 1919,'' Harold Nicolson sketched caustic vignettes of elderly statesmen adrift in a world they couldn't comprehend. And John Maynard Keynes, in ''The Economic Consequences of the Peace,'' demolished the credibility of the settlement itself, eviscerated the case for war reparations and predicted the disaster that must follow. These accounts are still worth reading.
Margaret MacMillan with her ''Paris 1919'' has written a very good history of the negotiations, full of detail and fairly comprehensive. While the organization of the book is sometimes confusing, for example discussing the 1919 creation of Yugoslavia without first explaining what happened in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. And the author's decision to tell the story of the breakup of the Hapsburg empire after her account of the little states that succeeded may confuse those not already familiar with that story. But the many national narratives were well told and constitute parts of the book that I enjoyed the most.
MacMillan has a good focus on the characterization of individuals, both leading figures like Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and peripheral actors like Queen Marie of Romania and many other hapless supplicants from Beijing to Budapest. Wilson is treated fairly and realistically. Despite his good intentions, perhaps because of them, he was widely viewed as petulant, petty and vain. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, while growing tolerant of his obsessions never got used to his peculiarly American brand of idealism. Wilson, just as would prove to be the case upon his return to face the Senate, was unable to adapt and compromise, demurring the requisite political trading that might achieve some of his goals. His obsession with achieving his new League of Nations was not shared by the many Europeans.
Nevertheless, the American president was the key figure in Paris. The French were understandably concerned with keeping Germany down for the indefinite future. The Italians wanted the territorial pound of flesh they had been secretly promised in return for switching sides in 1915. The British sought above all to stabilize the periphery of Europe and protect access to their imperial possessions farther south and east. Only the Americans had a Big Idea -- self-determination. The peoples and nations now released from imperial captivity were each to receive their own spaces, assigned after careful specialist attention to history, geography, language and other relevant considerations. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, even Kurds were to have a place in the sun. Only Germans, and to a lesser extent Turks, were not free to determine where and with whom they would live -- the price of defeat.
The unintended consequences of this "Big Idea" are still haunting the world today almost a century later. The idea of self-determination was a chimera leading to a disastrous reality. As Robert Lansing, Wilson's secretary of state, predicted: ''It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.'' He was right. The peoples of central Europe and the old Ottoman empire could not be divided into conveniently distinct communities. They were mixed up together then and we have seen the results in the Balkans at the end of the twentieth century and are seeing a continuation of sorts both in the Middle East and the old Soviet Empire today.
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