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Thursday, May 01, 2003

Book Reviews

Public Interest and Private Vices

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, New York, 2001, 570pages, $35.

This is a book about a new world order that might herald the arrival of a new way of writing diplomatic history. That would be readable diplomatic history. This genre of scholarly inquiry has been pushed to the margins of academic historiography thanks to the rise of social history in the 1970s and cultural history in the 1990s. To be sure, biographies of politicians from Winston Churchill to Theodore Roosevelt continue unabated, but the bulk of their readers are not among those comfortably ensconced behind the ivy.

Diplomatic historians still exist in academe, but they are a dying breed, their approach regarded as old-fashioned, their wares outdated. A quick look at the textbooks used for introductory history courses in colleges and universities will show how concerns with societies and cultures have displaced the older focus on politicians and diplomats. History professors competing with colleagues in other disciplines for the attention of a younger generation sensitive to multicultural and gender concerns prudently redesign their syllabi accordingly. Dead white male diplomats are therefore limited to cameo appearances on the stage of world history.

That Margaret MacMillan would buck the trend and write a lively and engaging diplomatic history of the post-First World War treaties signed in Paris is especially impressive. The Paris peace conference, held between January 1919 and (officially) January 1920, involved the leaders of 32 states representing about 75 percent of the world’s population, and did nothing less than determine the shape of the world in ways that are evident, for better or worse, even today. Inevitably, this seminal event spawned a prodigious body of published and unpublished documentation and, subsequently, a torrent of memoirs and analyses in books and articles.

Rather than attempt to synthesize this daunting corpus of works that detail the diplomatic wrangling during the conference, MacMillan chose to focus primarily on the personalities that dominated and shaped the outcome of the peace, the “Big Three”: France’s Georges Clemenceau, Britain’s David Lloyd George, and US president Woodrow Wilson. She introduces the other statesmen as she recounts the conference’s successive treatment of the long list of political and territorial issues it dealt with, from the Balkans to China and Poland to Iraq.

Perhaps because MacMillan is Lloyd George’s granddaughter, she excels in producing irreverent portraits of the dramatis personae. Coupled with her penchant for dwelling on the humorous and unexpected, this results in wonderfully entertaining and realistically down-to-earth evocations of the personalities of this galaxy of heads of state, prime ministers, and foreign ministers who rubbed shoulders at the conference. Yet this is book is not merely a succession of prosopographies. On the contrary, MacMillan’s account consists of clusters of chapters explaining the particular issues relating to each part of the world under scrutiny.

It begins with the principles that the Big Three sought to shape the deliberations, Wilson’s 14 points, including the right to self-determination, international security through the establishment of a League of Nations, and the authority given to the great powers to continue their imperial reach by turning their colonies into “mandates.” The book then examines how all of this was implemented in the case of territorial arrangements in the Balkans, neutralizing a future German threat, breaking up Austria-Hungary into nations, dealing with Italy’s multiple demands, adjudicating between China and Japan, and, last but not least, managing the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

Throughout her account, MacMillan blends the personal with the diplomatic and political. She takes it for granted that all states involved pursued interests rather than principles and that, moreover, the major statesmen were in charge of their countries’ policies. The two keys to understanding how the peace conference unfolded, therefore, is, first of all, the personalities of the major statesmen and, second, their own perception of things. In MacMillan’s own words, “armies, navies, railways, economies, ideologies, history: all these are important in understanding the Paris Peace Conference. But so, too, are individuals because, in the end, people draw up reports, make decisions.” And these individuals, she adds, “brought their interests with them” to Paris, “but they also brought their likes and dislikes” (p. xxxi).

These likes and dislikes ranged from fluctuating feelings toward each other to strong sympathies or antipathies toward the lesser characters of the plot. The idiosyncrasies of each person make for amusing reading. MacMillan is relentless but consistent on this front, targeting the big and not-so-big, Europeans and non-Europeans. She cannot be accused of Orientalist bias after she has painted such unflattering portraits of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson, with the help of well-chosen quotes from their own musings or from those surrounding the great men.

Wilson, the author of the famous 14 points, for example, was “a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong,” according to France’s ambassador in Washington (p. 5). If our regard for Wilson is demythologized, our sympathy for the hapless Germans, in town to sign the humiliating peace, is mitigated when we learn that, upon being sequestered in a hotel with curious crowds at bay, they feel “like the inhabitants of a Negro village in an exposition” (p. 460).

As MacMillan weaves this colorful tapestry of national interest and personal prejudice, it soon becomes obvious that ignorance is also a major factor at work. With Wilson’s concept of self-determination woefully vague, and with the Big Three’s uncertain grasp of the faraway places whose future they were deciding, compromise began to replace principle. Ultimately, therefore, the treaties determining the post-First World War world were both inconsistent in their many wrongful implementations of the principle of self-determination and arbitrary, as when they conjoined three heterogeneous Ottoman pashaliks to create a country to be called Iraq.

Asia Minor was a region slightly better known than some of the other places whose fate was decided in Paris. But it was not geography or topography that influenced the way the powers handled Greek claims to the coastal line north and south of Smyrna. Instead, true to form, the Big Three proceeded based on their feelings of admiration for ancient Greece and for Eleftherios Venizelos personally. “Its past,” writes MacMillan, “gave modern Greece a ready-made circle of supporters” (p. 353). They included Clemenceau, who, as he said, immersed himself in ancient Greece the way others took time off to go fishing, in order to escape the wear and tear of politics. As for Lloyd George, he developed a deep admiration for the Greek statesman and “backed Venizelos as he backed few people” (p. 354).

MacMillan is hampered by a dearth of reliable sources on Venizelos, but she finds enough in the English-language Greek sources to suggest that his own personality had something to do with the uncontrolled way Greece pressed its territorial claims on the other side of the Aegean. Venizelos, whom she describes, echoing Lloyd George, as “the greatest Greek statesman since Pericles,” was brimming with confidence in his powers of persuasion. When he made his case in Paris, MacMillan writes that Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson were restrained, while Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, who was hostile to Greece, was tactful. Yet Venizelos reported back to Athens that he believed he had made a favorable impression. It was based on his reading of the situation in Paris that Greece would embark on the fateful expedition to Smyrna that resulted in the Asia Minor Disaster.

Like all good narratives, MacMillan’s epic account of the Paris peace conference ends with an unexpected twist. After she has spent almost 500 pages cutting everyone and everything down to size, she suggests that, nonetheless, the conference’s decisions should not be blamed for the Second World War. This is tantamount to revisionism at the eleventh hour, as the harsh reparations forced on Germany, not to mention other unfortunate arrangements such as Hungary’s territorial emasculation, have all been subsequently blamed on the peacemakers. In fact, the peace agreements following the Second World War fell over backward not to repeat the punitive treaties signed in Paris in 1919, lest they bred another set of dictators that would feed off the desperation and humiliation of the defeated side.

Yet MacMillan writes that we must not consider the peace agreements as the source of all evil and the cause of the world war that followed. The reason is simple, and consistent with her view of the dynamics in Paris, which relied on the actions of a handful of political leaders. There, high principles were distilled into interest-laden policies managed by persons who, although well-meaning, saw the world through idiosyncratic lenses. The reactions to those agreements, and their rejection in the years that followed, she suggests, were not automatic. They happened only after the inevitable weaknesses were skillfully amplified and manipulated by another set of individuals such as Hitler, who share the most blame for why a long-term peace did not take hold in Paris in 1919.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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