What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan’s intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. MacMillan disputes that this narrow view was the main and sole weakness of the Conference, as will be discussed below.
When the Peace Conference was convened, its chosen heads—America, Great Britain, France, and Italy—took it upon themselves not only to negotiate a lasting peace, but to solve many of the geographic disputes of small nations or cultural groups. The only caveat required to present a plea the ‘Big Four’ was that a group must justify how they were supporters of the victors throughout the Great War. Ostensibly led by American President Woodrow Wilson, the Big Four sought to re-draw the world in such a way as to create calmness and ensure the vanquished were left with little. MacMillan weaves an extremely detailed explanation of how the world changed and what the Big Four did by slashing a pen across a map they could not bother to examine. It is clear that Wilson wanted a League of Nations—a world parliament of sorts—drawn-up along the lines of his key Fourteen Points to save the world. While noble, the attentive reader can see that even a century ago, American leaders were big on the ‘my plan only’ mindset, even if it did not take into account many of the world’s nuances. Still, as MacMillan argues, Wilson saw benefit in reshaping the world, as it was surely ‘broken’ and needed injection of new perspectives. This idea permeates throughout the book as MacMillan shows how, over a six-month period, many of the world’s disputes were heard and ruled upon, though not always in a way that would foster lasting peace. The Middle East was doled out like the spoils of a poker game, decided and bid on by the Big Four, but forgetting history or ethnicity. The Ottoman Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were picked apart, leaving a carcass unrecognisable by geography or ethnicity. Like putting bees in a jar and hope they will learn to be amicable.
MacMillan pulls no punches in her book. None of the Big Four are safe from her harsh criticism at one point or another. She lays out her facts (I am not naive enough to think that she is not writing from her own angle) and then lets the reader see the fallout. Telling not only of the presentations by delegations, but also the inner fighting between the US, UK, France, and Italy, MacMillan shows how decisions were not simply agreed upon over a bottle or two of wine. Peering into the lives of these four men and their apparent infallibility, we see just how human they are.
MacMillan does a masterful job presenting the history in this piece. She weaves together a ton of information and organises it so that the reader can readily understand what is going on. With brief, but poignant, biographies of the Big Four leaders, she sets the scene before offering up some chronological narratives about the goings-on in Paris. Giving each country their own chapter, MacMillan thoroughly explores their plights, asks, and the eventual decision reached, which can sometimes pave the way for the cognizant reader to see the modern reverberations of these actions. A thorough tome if ever there was one, MacMillan is a master at telling her story and uses a preponderance of evidence to back up the claims she makes throughout, leaving the reader to decide how closely they align with her arguments. While hindsight is always crystal clear, I can see the glaring errors that have come from these decisions in the winter and spring of 1919. Shattered states that I grew up seeing dissolve were born in the geographic biology labs of Paris in 1919. Imagine such a Conference now and how truly impossible it would be. Six months with the major leaders sitting down, mostly uninterrupted, and hashing something out as thoroughly and intricately as the re-organisation of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I cannot fathom this ever happening again. But, perhaps this is why it was such a tragedy at the time and that history has shown the disaster it became. MacMillan does not try to soften the blow, as the world has surely become more chaotic because of the Paris Peace Conference. I just wonder if we’d have been better off without any attempts at gluing the world together in 1919 and what it would look like a century later.
Splendid job, Ms. MacMillan. Great to see a Canadian present such a fabulous piece of analysis as it relates to a profound bit of world history. Kudos and much praise.
This book fulfils Topic #3: A Tragic Tome, part of the Equinox #5 Reading Challenge.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons