Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

by Margaret MacMillan
497 pages,
ISBN: 0375508260

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Making Sense of the Whole Damn Mess
by Patrick Watson

"For six months in 1919 Paris was the Capital of the world." So begins the introduction to this substantial and engaging account of that bizarre conference after the armistice that momentarily silenced the guns of The Great War. The direction of world history for the next century was largely set in motion at that conference. The inevitability of a second World War was almost assured. Paris briefly became the seat of a World Government, and the delegations of the Great Powers (there were 400 from Britain alone) made it a city within a city. The wifes of the delegates were not invited and daily life in Paris for many of the delegates was hedonistic, with much great dining, drinking and indiscriminate fucking.
Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, said that it was much easier to make war than to make peace. That winter and spring in Paris would prove him right. But out of the rhetoric, the pleading, the squabbling and the sometimes hard and lucid hammering out of policy, there would come into being a number of nations that had never existed before. The "young new countries" in North America would find themselves suddenly older than a dozen or so of these European and mid-east geopolitical contrivances. And the motives and themes flowing into some of those creations¨Iraq especially¨seem unexpectedly contemporary as the reader moves through MacMillan's gossipy, riveting narrative.
The major players were the Allies: Britain, France, The USA and Italy (easy to forget that Italy had been on the British side in that war) China, Japan (also an ally!), Greece, and Rumania. The Jews and the Arabs tried bravely to claim some of the victor's rightsűbut would on the whole be scorned and manipulated by the Council of Four. Also scorned and manipulated, to his and perhaps the world's surprise, was the only Head of State at the conference, Woodrow Wilson, the first U.S. President ever to visit Europe. Wilson would make the mistake of being openly insulting to his own Secretary of State, who would then lead congressional opposition to the treaty when they got home. The professor-turned-statesman had come to Paris to save the world, only to find himself outclassed and outmanoeuvred at almost every turn by the wily old foxes at the head of the French and British governments: Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George.
Parenthetically, author Margaret MacMillan, Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, is Lloyd George's great granddaughter. Students of modern European history, and students of economics, will have read a kind of preview of her book in the first chapter of John Maynard Keynes' The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1920. Keynes (who was there as an expert adviser to the British delegation) took a gossipy delight in Wilson's bewilderment at being given the slip again and again by Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Wilson's disappointments in Paris, however, would turn out to be minor in comparison with what he would face when he came home: a Senate that wouldn't ratify the final treaty, and a legislature that refused to let America take part in his dream of a League of Nations.
But the American President was a key player all the same. His ideas left a mark upon both the treaty and the world. An able administrator, he had transformed Princeton into a major University, gone on to be elected Governor of New Jersey, and then, in the 1912 election, defeated Theodore Roosevelt to become the Democratic President of the United States. Self-righteous¨"those opposed him were not just wrong but wicked . . . like the Germans"¨he also had a playful side, loved the movies, loved telling jokes that involved doing accents, was a relentless moralist who, like his successor Presidents, was not above lying publicly when it came major issues.
The great ideas with which he marked the Paris conference and the history of the world, were the "Self-determination" of national polities (never carefully defined, but a powerful rhetorical phrase), and a global forum for the resolution of international disputes, which would become the short-lived and ineffectual League of Nations. He was against burdening the defeated Germany with financial indemnities and reparations, predicting that these would lead to another Great War. Wilson declared, in the first of his famous Fourteen Points that the age of diplomacy as a world of secret agreements secretly arrived at was over, and that the purpose of Paris was "Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at." A nanve ideal, perhaps. But what a fine one.
It should be noted here that Germany was not a participant in the discussions that led to the drafting of what became known as The Versailles Treaty. What had happened on November 11th 1918, while commonly referred to as the end of the war, was a cease-fire, an armistice, the temporary cessation of hostilities while the conditions of a peace were worked out. In fact, although the Germans and the Allies had stopped shooting at each other, warfare continued throughout much of Europe during the Paris negotiations, and for years afterwards, and tens of thousands were killed. The commonplace that speaks of November 11th as "The Peace" is simply inaccurate.
Margaret MacMillan's book is as much a portrait of the major players as it is an account of their achievements and failures. The 78-year-old Georges Clemenceau was a former physician and a journalist who, as Prime Minister, continued to publish his own newspaper, L'Homme Libre. He was an autocratic schemer, who had his police secretly follow his principal advisers and report on what they did the day before. He was also an art lover with a country place near Monet's at Giverny, where he visited and came to adore the great panels of water lilies the artist kept working on for so many years.
Although he and the British Prime Minister Lloyd George were the central figures, they seldom had lunch together, and quarrelled a great deal. Both admired and distrusted each other. Lloyd George, a Welshman, was a great orator, charming, a champion of the ordinary citizen who attacked privilege, admired the Empire, but believed in self-government for the colonies and Dominions. He was a womanizer whose mistress at that time, Frances Stevenson, left a stack of letters and journals that are an important source for author MacMillan. Winston Churchill said that Lloyd George had "more courage and insight" than anyone he knew.
He was very bright, but embarrassingly dim about geography, a serious liability for someone whose charge was to divide up the world among the victors. At times he left his colleagues gasping at his gaffes in this respect. The Dominions had suffered dreadful casualties in the War. Even Australia lost more men than the USA. Australia, Canada and South Africa did not always side with the Brits and sometimes made their life at the negotiating table very difficult.
The Germans were simply not invited. They would be handed a package when it was all over. The negotiations and disputes were not between the major combatants but involved only the victors, and concerned the division of the spoils of war (Germany's African colonies, for example.) Russia, with its recent revolution, was absent. Clemenceau said that if the Russians were invited (they were now seen as tools of the Germans) there would be riots in the streets. In fact Churchill and the French military genius MarTchal Foch were already proposing war against the Leninists, but Wilson said "Let them work out their own salvation."
Despite the general public agreement about Wilson's Point One, "open covenants of peace openly arrived at," the press was largely kept at bay. But amid the squabbling and the greed there did rise to the surface some prescient principles for the conduct of international relations in what was hoped to be a new and peaceful world. The Japanese proposed a covenant for the protection of ethnic and linguistic minorities. International respect for copyright and trademarks was to be a function of the League's newly-instituted regulations. The Powers were intent on turning the League into a source of great, permanent and noble things. Penalties for war crimes were proposed. Votes for women were briefly discussed, then dropped. A young kitchen worker sent in a proposal for the independence of his homeland, Vietnam. His name was Ho Chi Minh.
Most of the work, however, had to do with territories. The great powers recreated Poland, invented Czechoslovakia, Finland and Yugoslavia, and declared the independence of the Baltic states. The idea of "Mandates" under the league, whereby the defeated countries would be sort-of governed by, or governed under the guidance of, one of the victor nations, was a matter of almost endless dispute. Austria had been reduced to an impoverished Vienna: no seacoast, no power, no influence. Poland, once the proto-democratic political Jewel of north-central Europe, but only a memory since 1795, took more committee time than any other issue. Combat among Baltic, Bolshevik, German Freikorps and Polish units would go on into 1920. Further south, Ukrainian blood was being shed throughout most of the period of the Conference, as was Czech blood, and Hungarian, Turkish, Serbian, Armenian, Albanian, Galician, Ruthvenian, Byelorussian¨a bewildering and seemingly endless tapestry of feuding tribes. 1
The armistice, as noted above, was not a peace, it was a cease-fire that had to be renewed every month. A state of war still existed. The Brits contemplated resuming hostilities and Lloyd George offered to dig a tunnel under the Channel to supply the Allied armies. Turks, Armenians, Hungarians and Serbians were still busy shooting at each other. The U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who had wanted America in the war from the start, argued that they should not have signed that armistice¨instead they should have pressed on for Berlin and for total defeat and unconditional surrender. He wanted an international league not of all nations (who would be endlessly mired in compromise) but of democratic states, strong and uncompromising, and to whose membership perhaps the non-democratic world would begin to aspire, if only for the attendant stability and prosperity. A very interesting idea.
MacMillan does not join the crowd of traditional historians who have attributed WWII to the reparations, which amounted to far less than proposed¨only $34bn instead of the $220bn the French wanted. In any case Germany repeatedly defaulted on her payments. And in the end, while quietly rebuilding the prohibited army and air force, paid only about half of what she had been forced to agree to. It was not simply the Treaty, insists MacMillan, contravening long held views, but decisions taken and not taken over the following twenty years that brought on WW II. Germany signed the treaty under great protest, but "The picture of a Germany crushed by a vindictive peace cannot be sustained," she writes. The depression did more harm than the treaty, but the real secret was that "the Allied victory had not been decisive. . . Germany remained too strong."
Throughout those months in Paris, in 1919, not only were the press kept in the dark much of the time, but for the first few months nobody kept any notes on what had been discussed; so of course even the principals forgot what they had agreed on. Le Figaro said that the conference was "a battle of Negroes at night in a tunnel." The Belgians, who correctly said they had lost more per capita than any other combatant nation, refused to sign the accord. Italy walked out on April 28th, and returned to the table in early May, signing just as their government fell. The radical poet Gabriele D'Annunzio took power, and Mussolini watched and waited.
Greece tried to grab the Adriatic coast. Lawrence of Arabia tried to get a good deal for the Arabs. The French tried to drive a wedge between the Brits and Prince Feisal. A senior Bureaucrat named Arnold Wilson said that Basra, Mosul and Baghdad should be regarded as a single unit under British Control. In the end the Brits created Iraq out of Mesopotamia and other bits and pieces, in order to control the oilfields, and installed the complaisant Feisal as its King. They had thrown together, MacMillan writes, "peoples. . .who have not managed to cohere into a civil society."
Does all of this sound eerily pertinent more than eighty years later?
At the end of February, a middle-aged British research chemist rejected the earlier Zionist plan to buy Uganda as a home for the Jews, and proposed Palestine instead. His name was Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann had given Britain a cheap way of making acetone, an essential for the munitions trade, and this had won him the gratitude of Lloyd George's government. Weizmann met the Arab leader, Prince Feisal, and they both agreed that they distrusted the French, who had initially been promised Palestine. Clemenceau became so angry with Lloyd George at one point that he offered him his choice of pistols or swords at dawn.
The trip through this book is a great revisiting of so many of those interlocking bits of modern history we thought we knew but had forgotten, a trip that makes the confusions of today seem, if not more comprehensible, at least part of a context.
Much of that context is still very visible in the world of Bush, Blair, and Chirac. In the end, MacMillan says, the "bickering which dragged on through 1919 was about more than territory. It was about Joan of Arc and William the Conqueror, the Heights of Abraham and Plassy, about the Crusaders, about Napoleon in Egypt and Nelson's destruction of his fleet at the battle of the Nile, about the scramble for Africa . . . . about the competition for influence between French and Anglo-Saxon civilizations." This kind of magisterial pronunciamento, while not indulged extravagantly by Professor MacMillan, appears in a timely fashion here and there, just when the reader is beginning to be hungry for some interpretive rationalizing of the whole damn mess.
There are moments when, having finished the section on the Poles, say, she moves on to the Albanians, you think she is discussing 1921 but you are in fact back in 1918, and you find yourself disorientated. But after a while this reviewer found all that to be part of the fun (yes, fun) and the challenge of the book. I'm not sure how else she could have given us such a tactile and textured portrait of the protagonists and such a visceral sense of the events.
Margaret MacMillan was not able to find a Canadian publisher for this absorbing work, which is steadily winning splendid notices. At Amazon's website the non-professional readers' reviews, some of which are almost as long as this one, mostly rate it at five stars. If what I have written intrigues, be aware that I have only touched the surface. An enormously rewarding read. ˛

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