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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

Reviewed: March 4, 2010
By: Margaret MacMillan
Publisher: Random House
570 pages, $25.95

It’s a truism in high school history texts that the Paris Peace Conference, far from laying to rest the issues stemming from the Great War, laid the groundwork for the rise of Hitler and the war that would follow.

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan is not so sure about that, but she’s pretty certain that the shape of the world we’re in now was determined by those deliberations of over 90 years ago.

In her introduction MacMillan notes that the world had never seen anything quite like the Paris Peace Conference. It made Paris the capital of the world for a few months and all the most important people, whether politicians or bureaucrats, were there for a good deal of those six months.

“They argued, debated, quarrelled and made up again. They dined together and went to the theatre together, and between January and June Paris was at once the world’s government, its court of appeal and its parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes.”

Among those hopes was the notion that the world had just fought the “war to end all wars” and that whatever they were cobbling together here would be the foundation of a lasting peace. War, previously held by Bismarck as being simply another form of international diplomacy, was re-branded as evil, and since it was evil, someone had to be found to be to blame for it. And since the winners do tend to get to set the terms, the losers had to be the bad guys.

But there was so much more to it that simply pinning the blame on Germany. They would have loved to pin more of the blame on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but it had inconveniently ceased to exist, having disintegrated in the heat of battle, and so there was lots of excess blame to give to the Germans.

Then there was the matter of the colonies. The conflict was known for many years as the Great War, not because it was so wonderful, but because it involved so much of the world. This was largely due to the colonial system and the network of client states that the great powers had spent half a century weaving together. Thus, when it all happened again in 1939, the 1914 to 1918 was was renamed World War One.

MacMillan’s book makes it clear just how incredibly confusing those six months of talks and negotiations must have been. In fact, she clarifies them to a large extent by breaking them into sections and subsections. Part Seven, “Setting the Middle East Alight”, has , for instance, five chapters, dealing in turn with the Greeks, the collapse of the Ottomans, Arab independence, Palestine and the formation of modern Turkey. The roots of the present conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are there to be seen as is, of course, the continuing tension in Palestine.

One has to step back from time to time and realize that all of these talks and events were taking place more or less simultaneously. While the big question may have been the treaty with Germany to end the war, the question of Russia and its revolutionary government loomed large as did the disposition of the new states in the Balkans, which had previously been dominated by Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

Indeed, the decay of the latter empire also spawned most of the new states in the Persian Gulf, and it is during these talks that the nationalistic hopes of the Arab countries gained statehood, while those of the Jews would be frustrated for another three decades and those of the Kurds would remain unfulfilled to the present day.

Not content with painting the big picture, MacMillan also provides a series of personal sketches, impressions of Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, a succession of Greek, Italian, Japanese and Balkan statesmen, Kemal Ataturk, and a variety of diplomats and dignitaries.

This is a fascinating book, and one that was heaped with honours when it first appeared. The cover stamp notes the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction writing, but it also took four other major awards that year. It’s well worth the time it takes to read.

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