A review of a Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret McMillan

Margaret Macmillan's book is thoroughly depressing. Her account of the Peace Conference of 1919 provides a comprehensive review of the issues, debates, personalities, and atmosphere of that great assembly of world leaders, when Paris was effectively the capital of the world. Her narrative highlights the limits of one-time, top-down efforts to remake world affairs, whether the effort is guided by power politics or liberal internationalism.

MacMillan, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, has something of a personal stake in the story. She is the great granddaughter of David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister who led the Empire Delegation to the conference. But MacMillan plays no favorites. Lloyd George fares no better or worse than the other leaders in Paris, and most of them do not fare particularly well. 

The Peace Conference is usually remembered for producing the German Treaty, signed at Versailles in June 1919, with its infamous War Guilt Clause and demand for reparations. But the conference was about much more. There were other enemies to be dealt with—Austria and Hungary, Bulgaria, the now-separate countries of the Ottoman Empire. Allies and friends—including Italy, Japan, and China—had to be satisfied. (China declared war on Germany in 1917, and within a year it had sent over 100,000 laborers to France to free allied soldiers for operations against German forces.) Russia, once an ally, was now in the midst of the Red-White Civil War and threatening to export revolution. The conference had to draw new boundaries around the world to accommodate these factors. Most important, the delegates sought to create a new international order, centered around the League of Nations and aimed collectively to preserve the peace. This was, after all, to be the conference that ended the war to end all wars. 

MacMillan deftly reviews the conference's great controversies and decisions (and non-decisions), many of which echo to this day: the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; the creation of Yugoslavia; the struggles with the new Soviet government; the dismemberment of Austria and Hungary; and the failure to include a racial equality clause in the covenant of the League of Nations. Some places that dominated the conference agenda—Basra, Mosul, Kosovo—were for many years lost to our consciousness, only to reemerge unexpectedly on the maps of contemporary American diplomats, military planners, and journalists.

The book is depressing in large part because it is an education in two realities of international affairs: the weight of the past and the ability of local leaders to manipulate that past for their own purposes. Neither of these favored, nor favors, the creation of an "international community" able to impose or encourage lasting order or justice. (This is my conclusion, not necessarily hers.)

MacMillan generally arranges her narrative in a topical rather than a chronological fashion, although she does her best to deal with her topics as they emerged most critically in Paris. She thereby loses something of the complexity and day-to-day dynamics of the conference. But she gains the ability to focus on the political and historical background of, for instance, the conflicting ethnic elements of what became Yugoslavia; Chinese grievances against the Western imperial powers; or the first stirrings of Arab nationalism. The underlying strength of local culture and history, when combined with and transformed by modern ethnic nationalism, dominates in particular MacMillan's account of the Balkans and the Middle East, and these hard facts remain disturbingly relevant.

* * *

History and culture do not explain everything, however. MacMillan provides the reader with capsule biographies of local leaders who made a difference, for better or worse, during and in the aftermath of the Peace conference. These include Eleutherios Venizelos of Greece, Nicola Pasic of Serbia, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) of what became modern Turkey, Feisal of the Hashemite clan, and Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization. Such men occasionally worked with, but usually around or against the great powers—and each other—to achieve their national or ethnic aspirations. They often succeeded in the short run, sometimes with catastrophic consequences in the long run, because they offered a particular vision of the future that created or asserted a modern identity for their peoples that hitherto had not existed. They pursued that vision regardless of the effect on regional or global stability or on the best-laid plans of the demigods in Paris. And these were the more-or-less successful leaders. Many others tried and failed in their time, but their old or newly inspired dreams lived on (see, for instance, the Kurds).

How did the Paris Peace Conference attempt to deal with this volatile mixture of history, culture, and ambition? In MacMillan's view, traditional great power interests, particularly British and French interests, dominated the deliberations. Despite the patina of a concert among all the allied powers—and the opportunities for dissent and discussion supposedly accorded to the defeated powers and other interested players—the conference was dominated by Britain, France, and the United States (Italy and especially Japan were generally shunted to the side). 

Lloyd George and even the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, certainly recognized the need for new departures—a new cooperative spirit—to maintain the peace. But when push came to shove, when their traditional imperial interests were at stake, especially in the Middle East, London and Paris repaired to the compass of power politics, which often pointed in opposition directions. And even had Lloyd George and Clemenceau been more open-minded, they both had to pay heed to their respective domestic political constituencies.

This situation left the United States as either the great reconciler or the odd-man out. It turned out to be the latter, but that fact was not evident at the time. The United States, to be sure, pursued its own share of traditional interests, such as recognition of the Monroe Doctrine; but President Woodrow Wilson saw America—himself, really—as the only disinterested party at the conference. In his own mind, he spoke for the masses, and not just for American public opinion but for the aspirations of the world. Wilson sought to give voice to those aspirations by insisting that a concert of power, not a balance of power, must serve as the underlying basis of the post-war settlement. 

Thus, those at the conference with a grievance and an ambition—and nearly everyone had grievances and ambitions—looked to the Americans for relief and support. Wilson's famous Fourteen Points contained something for nearly everyone. There was above all else the famous assertion that "all nations had a right to self-determination." But what practical direction did this lofty goal provide? "When I gave utterance to those words," Wilson admitted later, "I said them without knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day." Secretary of State Robert Lansing asked in frustration: "When the President talks of 'self determination,' what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?…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." 

In the end, Wilson made any number of compromises and about-faces on the Fourteen Points and other related American policies, such as letting the Japanese take the Shantung peninsula in China. He believed that these matters could be adjusted later, as the passions of war receded and as the League of Nations grew organically into a true concert of power. The important point for Wilson was to gain universal acceptance of the formalities of international cooperation, however messy or contradictory the immediate details might be. In particular, Wilson believed that the involvement of the United States in the League was essential because only America could serve as the disinterested catalyst of a world community. One cannot but think that by the United States, Wilson meant himself, as if he personally would be the perpetual voice and arbiter of world opinion. Indeed, Wilson seriously contemplated running for a third term in office.

Wilson's inevitable compromises at the Peace Conference created much bitterness, both among those in Paris who claimed they were victimized and among his critics in America, who contrasted the president's shining, generalized idealism with his acceptance of many particular injustices. Wilson, ironically, then took a hard and futile line against compromise with the United States Senate over ratification of the Versailles Treaty, and thus his great experiment in world order was never fully tried.

* * *

In any event, neither power politics nor liberal internationalism—and especially not the uneasy mix of the two that came out of the Peace Conference—could address the brutal facts of the post-war situation. As MacMillan observes, there were two realities in the world of 1919, and they did not always mesh. One was in Paris and the other on the ground, where peoples were making their own destinies and fighting their own battles. The peacemakers had armies and navies but they were melting away, and geography, and time, were working against them. "The root of evils is that the Paris writ does not run," a British general told Lloyd George. Power politics requires power, and the leaders of France, Britain, and Italy no longer had the capacity to order or persuade their peoples to pay a high price for power. The United States alone had the capacity to act, but it did not see itself as having that role, and its power was not yet great enough.

MacMillan concludes that the weaknesses of the Paris Peace Conference and the Versailles Treaty were not the cause of the subsequent breakdown of global order and World War II, as many have alleged. The unhappy ending came about partly because of circumstances beyond anyone's control, but largely because of human agency and choice in the years after 1919. With different leadership in the Western democracies and in Weimar Germany, without Hitler to mobilize the resentments of ordinary Germans and to play on the guilty consciences of the allies, MacMillan writes, the story might have turned out differently. The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations are not to blame. The Treaty was never consistently enforced, or only enough to irritate German nationalism without limiting German power to disrupt the peace of Europe. The League could never be anything more than what the serious nations could make of it.

Paris 1919 points to the conclusion that any semblance of international peace and justice requires the sustained application of power and purpose; and that such power and purpose cannot be generated by the "international community." This is so even if the application of such power and purpose must eventually be recognized as legitimate by most nations and peoples. Unfortunately, the confluence of power, purpose, and legitimacy is rare, much rarer than we would like. Peace and justice are likely to be achieved on a particular and limited rather than a global and permanent basis because there are always some ambitious or embittered souls who did not get the memo announcing the end of history or the end of their dreams.