Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan

Paris 1919 cover

“Each of the Big Three at the Peace Conference brought something of his own country to the negotiations: Wilson the United States’ benevolence, a confident assurance that the American way was the best, and an uneasy suspicion that the Europeans might fail to see this; Clemenceau France’s profound patriotism, its relief at the victory and its perpetual apprehension of a revived Germany; and Lloyd George Britain’s vast web of colonies and its mighty navy. Each man represented great interests, but each was also an individual. Their failings and their strengths, their fatigue and their illnesses, their likes and dislikes were also to shape the peace settlements.”
This book functions almost as a sequel to David King’s (brilliant) account of the Congress of Vienna, Vienna 1814. The similarities between the two conferences (one following the defeat of Napoleon, the other following the end of World War One) are even acknowledged by the conference attendees themselves: the Congress of Vienna was used as a model when planning the conference in 1919, with the statesmen agreeing that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes their predecessors made. This meant looking at the endless parade of parties that made up the Congress of Vienna, shaking their heads, and saying, “Well, we certainly won’t be having any of THAT nonsense!”, much to my disappointment. (Although there’s a funny bit about the peacemakers ensuring that all trash was thoroughly shredded, because at the Congress of Vienna there had been a problem with confidential memos being fished out of wastebaskets) Not that there weren’t parties during the Paris peace conference; one just gets the impression that the people involved were more focused more on Serious Political Stuff and less on fighting over mistresses. Boo, I say, but whatever.

The book is organized very well – rather than going in strictly chronological order, MacMillan divides the conference into countries. One chapter will be about Russia, the next about Yugoslavia, then Austria, etc. This clear separation of topics, combined with the fact that the chapters are rarely more than thirty pages each, makes it easy to dip in and out of this book and never get lost. It’s a good, solid history of a complicated and influential period in time, and MacMillan gets bonus points for arguing (pretty successfully) that the Treaty of Versailles was not to blame for Hitler’s rise to power in Germany following the end of World War One.

Why three stars, then? The problem is that I had read Vienna 1814 before this, and Paris 1919 pales in comparison. King’s book succeeded because he focused on the people making the treaties, and spent time showing them as people, not statesmen: the book was full of delightful stories about the peacemakers sleeping around and squabbling amongst themselves, and it was great because it made the reader see that the people making this world-altering decisions were people, warts and all, instead of names in a textbook. MacMillan’s book focuses on the policies, not the people making them, and this is to the detriment of the book. The best she can offer us is this passage:

“The Four bickered, shouted, and swore at each other, but they also, even Orlando, teased each other, told jokes, and commiserated. They pored over the maps and even crawled together over Wilson’s huge map of Europe, which had to be unrolled on the floor. Lloyd George and Wilson talked about going to church; Clemenceau said he had never been in a church in his life. They compared notes on what upset them. Clemenceau told the others that he was never kept awake by abuse but had trouble sleeping when he felt he had made a fool of himself. Wilson and Lloyd George both knew exactly what he meant. The others listened politely to Wilson’s homespun Southern jokes and ventured their own. …Toward the end of their meetings, Clemenceau asked Lloyd George, ‘How do you like Wilson?’ Lloyd George replied, ‘I like him and I like him very much better now than I did at the beginning.’ ‘So do I,’ said Clemenceau. They shared the loneliness of power, and they understood one another as no one else could.”

That’s about as human as the “Big Three” ever get. The rest of the time, they’re just wooden figures being moved around, and you never really get to see them on a human level. Not that we really need to see them like this – the book succeeds as well-written and easily accessible history even if the people involved remain on their pedestals. But after the masterful way the historical figures were portrayed in Vienna 1814, I could help feeling a little disappointed at how hollow the peacemakers remained in this book.

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