I have just finished Margaret MacMillian’s “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.” What a remarkable read, and what fascinating insights into the last century and the issues we still live with today.
I have had a long, deep interest in the First World War. I have read a broad range of historical, autobiographical and biographical accounts of the war, its foundations and its aftermath. Who couldn’t be absorbed by an event that was so recent, yet so completely unfathomable? An event that set the 20th Century on its path. How Europe gave way to America. How an entire generation of youth lived through, for no clear reason, a hell that even first hand accounts have difficulty describing. How the masses followed their often incompetent leadership without effective dissent, even though it led to almost certain oblivion. How the newly emboldened populations brought about the fall of most of the conservative institutions of Europe. How the vacuum left by their collapse drove nationalism throughout the world, laying the foundations for the Second World War and the Cold War.
And then there are the ‘what ifs’ that must have haunted those generations for the rest of their days. How might a telephone conference call, or some shuttle diplomacy, in July 1914 changed the events that unfolded?
Paris 1919 deals with perhaps the greater tragedy; the failure of the diplomats to secure a peace that would have given meaning to the sacrifices made.
I had always understood the treaties to have ‘laid the foundations of the next war’ by heavy reparations, the ‘war guilt’ clause, and the creation of the ‘Polish corridor’. Further, the failure of America to join the League of Nations cut short the optimism coming out of the conflict.
MacMillian tells a fundamentally different story. It is one of a complete catastrophe.
Each leader of the “Big Four” is deeply flawed. Wilson comes to the conference with the hope of Europe riding on his 14 points, but he seems to have no understanding of what his points actually mean or how the idea of national self-determination would be put into practice. He is mean spirited, stubborn and cynical. Clemenceau is driven by complete hatred and distrust of the Germans. Germany must be brought to her knees, permanently. Lloyd George wants to align Britain with the U.S., but doesn’t trust France. He seems more pre-occupied with those dynamics than any broader idealism. Orlando of Italy is intent on creating a greater Italian empire, contrary to virtually every stated principle of the conference.
There are so many layers and elements to the conference that it is hard to point out only a selection. There are few conflicts since 1919 that cannot be traced back to discussions at the Conference. Central Europe, Communist Russia, the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, East Asia, Africa. South America was left out of the discussions, only because Wilson forbad it, citing the Monroe Doctrine.
How any document was produced that all parties could sign is extraordinary. In fact, at the last minute, when a broader circle of people started to understand what was in it, a malaise set in, particularly among the British delegation. But by then it was too late. Perhaps the best line is from Henry Wilson (British military advisor):
So, we are going to hand out terms to the Boches without reading them ourselves first. I don’t think in all history this can be matched.
And, from President Wilson:
I hope that during the rest of my life I will have enough time to read this whole volume. We have completed in the least time possible the greatest work that four men have ever done.
It did surprise me that the author is so forgiving of the peacemakers. In her conclusion, MacMillian attributes most with good intentions and notes that the world was simply not ready for the kind of peace that would have been necessary bto avoid the tragedies that followed. While the last point may be true, in most cases the conference seemed to make the situation worse, rather than better.
One fascinating part of the account deals with the division of the former Ottoman Empire. France claims Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, on the basis of the Crusades. Italy responds that her claims are stronger, dating back to the Roman Empire. Greece then trumps all by pointing to Ancient Greece! Britain blocks it all due to a fear of France, and Wilson vacillates. No-one pays any attention to Ataturk, then forming a new nationalist force.
Another deals with how Central Europe is divided so casually, based on quick presentations and prejudices. In fact, after the conference, 30 million Europeans found themselves to be living as minorities in countries they had little affinity for. Ancient resentments were brought to the surface, then dismissed in the goal of expediency.
The one encouraging takeaway is that, as it is unimaginable that we will face another war like the Great War, so too is it unlikely we will suffer such a catastrophic failure of diplomacy. It does, however, highlight the ongoing dangers of hubris in world affairs, regardless of the goodness, or otherwise, of the intent. As such, it is a remarkable case study in the dangers of ignoring the underlying forces affecting global power, while instead assuming the world can be changed to conform to a particular ideology.
In broader terms, the account gives some practical insight into today’s world. In particular, one comes away with a sense that the current borders of Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and not sustainable under the traditional concepts of sovereignty. Interestingly, the conference contemplated a Kurdistan, with Mosul as its capital – dismissed by Britain due to oil considerations – and separate Sunni and Shia states in current day central and southern Iraq, ideas still debated today.
Ultimately, one is left with the sense that we haven’t quite seen the end of the 1919 peace.
UPDATE: George Will has penned an op-ed that is apropos this post, found here.