Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillian (Book Review)

History books tend to be written to either a highly specialized audience or the general public. Books written to the former will use technical terms and expect the reader to be familiar with the relevant references and events (think Piketty’s Capital) whereas “popular” history books aim for the reader to come away with a small number of take home messages and key ideas/names/events to remember (think Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel). On rare occasions a history book will present itself in a way that makes it appealing to both audiences. Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World is not only such a book that threads the needle between these two categories, it is also a masterpiece of research and narrative structure, and gives an illuminating perspective on one of the most important diplomatic events in world history. The treaties signed at this conference continue to define the nature of contemporary political events from the Balkans to the Middle East. Furthermore, MacMillan is one of our treasured Canadian historians: having obtained her education from the University of Toronto and taught there for many years (although she is now a professor at Oxford).

While not often mentioned, the onset of a great European war was as surprising to the European powers as was the ensuing length, chaos, and destruction of the First World War. It has been well noted by historians that bonds prices did not decline after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, and only declined slightly as the European powers began to mobilize their armies. However by the end of the war, inflation and the collapse of the Russian regime had led to a sizable loss in bond holdings. The European elites bet their money that this war would not happen, and they lost. More generally the naivety of European governments and generals stemmed from both the political and military experiences that had been seen on the continent until over the last century. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the Congress of Vienna met to establish a new European order, one whose aim would be to preserve the existing monarchies, limit of the possibility of republican revolutionary movements, and ensure that a wide-scale continental European war would not occur again. While the preservation of the monarchical systems in Europe was largely successful, and the republican and democratic political movements were largely curtailed throughout the century (see the failures of the 1848 revolutions for example), a pan-European military conflagration was at least prevented for 100 years.

The machinery underpinning this relatively peaceful period of European military history can be attributed to a variety of forces such industrialization, a further integration of European economic systems, and a military energy which was largely expended on colonial holdings. One factor that was at least perceived to be important was the the carefully tuned set of military and diplomatic alliances that ensured a balance of power: the idea that as long as no nation could militarily dominate the majority of its neighbours, a macro peace could be ensured. Sir Humphry explained this policy best (from the perspective of the United Kingdom of course):

Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

While Europe’s diplomats were convinced that their system of public and secret alliances would prevent a cataclysmic war (after all they had done so in the Balkans just a year before this), the generals were equally self-assured that should war come, the fighting would be swift and decisive (and that their side would win of course). The military view was based on the measured duration that fifty years of conflict before WWI had shown. There were numerous small-scale European battles that had been fought and concluded within a few years and often led to decisive concessions by the losing power, while at the same time maintaining an overall balance of power. Such wars include the Prusso-Danish, Prusso-Austrian, Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Turkish and Russo-Japanese war, the Balkan Wars, and the numerous wars between the Ottomans and Europeans (the Ottomans always losing it should be noted). While casualties were high in each of these conflicts, their limited duration masked the growing destructiveness of each battle. Consider the Battle of Mukden that take place in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. Both sides deployed around 300K men and saw casualty rates exceed 25%. Because the war would be shortly concluded after this battle, the number of absolute losses was small. However, WWI would see battles with casualties that often exceeded 100K men but without any decisive conclusion. Further developments in machine gun fire power and artillery bombardments would lead to the absolute maelstrom of death on all major fronts.

When war broke out in July 1914, the first six months of the war would see more than a million men die on the Western front alone as fruitless frontal assaults were continually launched by generals who failed to appreciate the relative advantage that defensive positions now held. More than four years later when the war finally ended the total number of military and civilian casualties would exceed 40 million. But the immediate concern for the allied victors was not just who didn’t make it through the war, but who was still around. Millions of Europeans had been become refugees. The European economic system had collapsed and currencies were worthless in many countries. The ancient Hapsburg monarchy had imploded and the ethnic and national groups that composed the Austro-Hungarian empire were clambering to create nation states and establish borders. While the Bolsheviks presented no direct military threat as they were still fighting a civil war (as well as some troops from the Western powers!), the fear of Bolshevism was a real one on the minds of European politicians. Hungary would go Red, and it was reasonably assumed that starving citizens were particularly amenable to Communist ideas.

The leaders of the three main Allied powers were Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, and David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom. Together they needed to come to diplomatic, military, and economic agreements with the defeated and newly developing countries of Europe to prevent a complete economic collapse of the European system and lay the foundations of an international order that would be able to prevent another world conflagration. And they needed to do so quickly. Every day their continental armies were beginning to disband as a war-weary public demanded the return of the sons and husbands from the front while their ministers of finance reminded them of the staggering cost of deployment. But as the military presence of the Allies declined, their leverage to impose their will decreased. After all, the Allied military forces barely crossed into German national territory by the time the war was finished. The German public was unaware of how close their military forces were to complete collapse. This incongruity between the declaration of surrender and almost complete avoidance of any physical damage to domestic infrastructure was able to fuel the lie propagated by German nationalists, and ultimately the Nazi party itself, that it was treasonous forces (read Jews) within the German state that led to their capitulation.

Then there was the matter of the economic and humanitarian crisis that was brewing. The year 1919 would see the onset of the Spanish Flu that would actually kill more people than the Great War itself. And the leading statesmen of Europe did not need to be reactionaries to appreciate the effect that starvation, unemployment, and millions of refugees would have on the nature of the governments that would need to form in Central Europe after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The extent to which these goals were themselves achievable is debatable, but these unambiguous challenges were further complicated by the personalities and domestic political realities that each of the peace makers brought with them. For Clemenceau, the Eminence Grace (?) of the group, he had been a teenager when the Prussians had conquered Paris and forced the country to sign a humiliating peace agreement in the mirrored-hallways of Versailles. It was for this reason that Versailles was chosen after WWI, not because the other two leaders wanted it there (they didn’t, they preferred a more neutral location like Switzerland) but because the French were unequivocal that this symbolic location had to chosen to restore the honour of France (it should also be noted that Hitler would also demand the terms of French surrender to happen in Versailles). While France had many interests in the post-war agreement (German colonial possessions in Africa, expanding their existing spheres of influence into the Middle East, and war reparations) Clemenceau was willing trade all of it for a complete and encompassing disarmament of German military power. To this end she demanded the huge swathes of German territory to ensure that if Germany were to re-arm and attack France again, it would have to cross hundreds of miles of it’s own former territory before it could reach the French mainland.

Woodrow Wilson was a politician whose ideas were new to the continent of the Europe. Initially campaigning on keeping America out of the War, a series of military provocations by Germany and a natural affinity to the English speaking and democratic world eventually pushed America into the war. For Wilson, the peace conference was just about that: ensuring European peace. The Americans felt this was the first and last time they were going to help out the Europeans and they needed to fix their broken system of secret alliances and tenuous balances of power. Wilson saw the establishment of a League of Nations that would handle international disputes multilaterally as the only sane and workable mechanism to keep the blood-thirsty Europeans in check. For the newly liberated regions of the former Ottoman empire and the newly forming states in Central Europe, Wilson espoused the idea of “self determination”: a people who want to govern themselves should be able to govern themselves. But how would self determination square with colonial holdings? Was Wilson going to advocate against the British Raj in India or any of the other vast colonial holdings France and England laid claim to? Who was to decide what constituted a “people”? Would this be along ethnic lines or religious ones? And what happens when these components clash with each other? Clearly the Ukrainians were a viable candidate for self determination but what of the protestant Ukrainians who did not feel the same affinity for their orthodox cousins? Being the former chancellor (?) of Princeton, Wilson’s mind was more attuned to addressing high level principles than sorting out the uninteresting, but yet essential, gritty details that any policy entails.

Lloyd George was the youngest and most pragmatic of the three main peace makers. He came from a relatively middle-class background in Wales and had managed to rise throughout the ranks of the Liberal party. He was naturally sympathetic to the underdog and was much less invested in European blood feuds. Nevertheless, Britain had incurred huge military casualties (although less than France and Germany) and had spent the most money in the war (although France and Belgium incurred the most damage to their domestic infrastructure), and its domestic public demanded some form of compensation. While Lloyd George was sympathetic to Wilson’s desire to reshape the mechanism by which global relations would take place, he would not do so at either the expense of Britain’s empire or its naval supremacy. The view held by virtually all British statesmen was that Britain’s domestic defence was safeguarded by the Royal Navy and the French continental army (a view that Churchill would actually express to Lester B. Pearson during the early months of the Battle of Britain and would horrify the future Canadian prime minister as being shockingly antiquated). In other words Britain would of course continence (?) self determination as long as it did not apply to its colonies and would happily endorse multilateral solutions as long it preserved its unilateral naval strength.

While the majority of the peace makers’ time was spent on a handful of issues: reparations, German disarmament, Franco-German borders, and the League of Nations, they also had to meet and dealt with a variety of new and modern interest groups that would come to define important social and political movements over the next century: women’s right, worker’s conditions and international labour groups, colonial groups demands for self determination, and competing ethnic and religious claims on overlapping territory in Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe. Consider the somewhat sad case of the Korean delegation that was sent to demand better terms for their country that was at that time under Japanese colonial occupation (Japan was one of the Allied powers). The Korean representatives unfortunately were still making their way across Siberia on a train by the time the conference ended. A young and dynamic Vietnamese national, Ho Chi Minh, was working as in a kitchen in Paris at the time and tried to lobby on behalf of Vietnamese independence. Their delegation’s demands were never official heard. Wilson’s talk of self determination had won him the admiration of ordinary citizens across Europe and even as far away as Kurdistan. But how could the great powers hope to deliver the hopes of aspirations of so many people when many of their desires conflicted the self determination of other groups?

Nor was the US, France, and the UK the only victorious nations in the war. As already mentioned the Japanese were part of the Allied powers and had joined the war early on. Although their contribution was limited and occurred only in the pacific theatre by taking a few islands and securing the German concessions on mainland China. Japan had only two interests from the conference: protect and enlarge their colonial holdings in East Asia and ensure the League of Nations treated all races equally. The former obviously conflicted with self determination while the latter was seen as unacceptable to the United States, Canada, and Australia whose domestic population saw any “anti-racist” declarations as methods to undermine their discriminatory immigration policies (such as the Chinese/Japanese land exclusion (?)).

Versailles was also the first time that Britain’s colonial dependencies (?) were going to be given a clear voice in the negotiating table. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa had all made large military and economic contributions to the war effort and had domestic political institutions that were largely autonomous from Westminster. It was said that the Canadians had gone up Vimy Ridge a colony but had come down a nation. Colonial forces were commanded by incompetent British generals and had fought in some of the most ill-conceived offensives (Ypres, Vimy, and the Dardanelles, to name a few). Blood and treasure had given them a seat at the table: if Canadian and Australian politicians could not stomach an anti-racist declaration than Britain was going to have to modify its own stance to accommodate its colonies.

The other large allied power who came with strong interests was Italy. She had joined the War in 1915 after seeing the near collapse of the Austro-Hungarian forces against the Russian juggernaut. Secret agreements made with France and Britain guaranteeing her new colonial territories in the Balkans and the Ottoman empire sealed the deal. Unfortunately, for Italy at any rate, the German army reinforced the Austrians and smashed the Russian army back into its own territory allowing the Austrians to redeploy their troops to the Italian border. The incompetence of the Italy army ensured that while it lost around 500K men, it gained almost no territory by the war’s end. Like Japan she remained quiet on most issues except for those that directly involved her (the carve up of Turkey and the status of the Balkan territories). The Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando and his foreign minister Sidney Sonnino had the most Machiavellian mindset of the Allied powers’ statesman and were bemused by Wilson’s high ideals. For Italy, international relations were to be largely conducted as they had been in the time of the Medici’s. They would remain unflinching in their demands throughout the conference and would ultimately walk away from the table at the last minute.

As time was of the essence the peace makers started making decisions. On topics to which the power’s had limited interests such as the creation of new states like Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states, they were reasonable and accepted nation states that largely aligned with the ethnic and linguistic realities on the ground (although millions of ethnic Germans were nevertheless separated from their traditional homeland – giving Hitler an excuse 20 years later to invade Poland and Czechoslovakia). The creation of Yugoslav state would ultimately lead to civil war 70 years later as rival ethnic groups sought their own independent polities after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it seems equally likely that had Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia been granted independence in 1919 a war would have broken out sometime even before that. The truly disastrous “line drawing” occurred in the Middle East where France and Britain let their colonial interests be the primary consideration. The conflicts we see in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine today along with internal Kurdo-Turkish struggles all largely stem from agreements and arrangements made in 1919.

When Germany sent her representatives to read the terms of the peace treaty they had mixed expectations. On the one hand, they had believed that Wilsonian self determination would provide a backstop to large parts of Germany being siphoned off due to ethnic considerations. They also knew that Britain would want to re-engage in commercial relations and not allow France to become the dominant force on the continent. However as the other Central Powers had either vanished into nothingness (the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires) or were financially meaningless backwaters (Romania and Bulgaria) or were newly formed states who disavowed their forced participation in the war (Hungary and Czechoslovakia), there was really no one else other than the Germans for the Allies to squeeze. Not only were the Germans astonished by the huge size of the war reparations demanded, they were also devastated by the loss of land and forced de-militarization. The German representatives protested that if they signed this treaty they would be effectively surrendering to an inevitable Bolshevik takeover (this claim was actually not as unreasonable as it sounds given that the state of Bavaria had a temporary Communist take over). At first it seemed as though the German parliament would be unable to gather the votes necessary to accept the terms and the Allies began to draw up plans for re-mobilization to smash their way to Berlin if necessary. However at the last hour the word came through that the Germans would sign.

Exhausted by months of ceaseless negotiation and near misses the peacemakers considered the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to be one of the highest achievements in modern European history. Non-communist states had been set up everywhere west of Russia, food supplies were flowing to the cities once again, and the League of Nations had been established. However within a decade the flaws of the treaty would be evident to everybody. Wilson’s antagonistic relationship with the Senate meant that America would never actually join the League and retreated from the international sphere. Germany’s economy collapsed into hyperinflation. In the 1930s the League was unable to deal with Japanese and Italian aggression. Most importantly, Germany was able to successfully re-arm and there was no mechanisms put in place to stop them. By the end of the First World War, there was at least a general understanding that the system of international relations as it stood was not working. The balance of power had failed and technological advances ensured mass death without rapid capitulation. More generally the issues of women, workers, and minorities were now legitimate concerns for international agreements. It would take another World War 20 years after Paris with the death of almost twice as many people (80 million) to finally establish a durable political and economic order that could prevent great power conflicts. MacMillan’s book is a masterly account of the first and imperfect attempt to set the world right.

Written on August 15, 2018