Book Review: 'Paris 1919' by Margaret MacMillan

Reviewed by John Keegan
Sunday, December 15, 2002

PARIS 1919

Six Months That Changed the World

By Margaret MacMillan

Random House. 570 pp. $35

Four times in the modern age men have sat down to reorder the world--at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 after the Thirty Years War, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, in Paris in 1919 after World War I and in San Francisco in 1945 after World War II.

The consequences of the settlement of 1648 persist, since it established the principle that states are sovereign. The settlement of 1815, which re-established the power of kings, did not last. The settlement of 1945 was undermined from the outset by Stalin's determination to sovietize all the territory the Red Army had liberated; it was only reversed by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

The settlement of 1919, as Margaret MacMillan reminds us in her new book, Paris 1919, is with us yet. The borders it drew for the "successor" states of the German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires remain, with trifling exceptions, and so does the principle of "self-determination" by which the statesmen worked.

So frequently do current events, particularly in the Balkans but also in the Middle East, take us back to the Paris Peace Conference that MacMillan's book often reads like a commentary on the daily newspaper. Does the newspaper reader wonder why Serbs and Croats are ready to fight over trivial slivers of territory, or why the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq are happy not to be ruled by Baghdad, or why the Czechs and Slovaks, after living together in apparent amity for 80 years, have recently decided to go their separate ways? MacMillan, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, explains the reasons.

The differences among all those peoples go back beyond 1919. Sometimes they go back to the nomadic migrations of the Dark Ages. The statesmen of 1919 knew that. So does the author. Nevertheless, she is right to see the Paris Conference as an attempt at a new beginning, and she captures the spirit of the enterprise brilliantly, as well as charting the wrong turns taken and the geography of the conference's successes.

That the statesmen of 1919--Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of Britain, Orlando of Italy--attempted a new beginning was the result of their being led by an American. The United States had, since its foundation, pursued a distinctive foreign policy, noted for its rejection of imperialism. In its president of the time, however, it had found a leader who elevated anti-imperialism to the level of doctrine.

Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist and former president of Princeton University, burned with the idealism of a free man committed to making all men free. He had taken his country into the Great War to oppose German tyranny, and his recipe for peace, when it came, was enshrined in his Fourteen Points, which he believed would make peace permanent. Three of his points had particular importance: the rights of small nations, which were to be created out of the old empires, where necessary, by self-determination; the rejection of secret diplomacy, which he believed had largely caused the war; and the establishment of a peace-keeping League of Nations by solemn covenant.

Wilson, who comes vividly to life under MacMillan's pen, dominated the conference. True, he was a head of state (sitting on a slightly higher chair to emphasize the point) while the others were not; but it was his personality and fervent convictions that gave him pre-eminence. In many ways, he was impossible--prissy, dogmatic, pedantic, unbearably self-righteous. He would listen to argument until he had made up his mind, then treat opposition as treasonable. He was "intolerant of differences and blind to the legitimate concerns of others," MacMillan writes. "Those who opposed him were not just wrong but wicked." Nevertheless, he was inarguably a great man. The Peace of Versailles was largely of his making, and the impress of his hand remains visible on the substance of world politics today, notably in the existence of the United Nations, his League reconstituted with some powers it was not given at Paris.

What did Paris do? Out of the wreck of the old European empires, largely the Austrian, it gave being to the independent states of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Out of the wreck of the Ottoman Empire, it created Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and sanctioned the creation of Palestine under British trusteeship, with allowance for a Jewish "national home." It also established trusteeships for the ex-German colonies of Africa and the Pacific.

Not all its creations lasted. The Czechs and Slovaks have, unnecessarily, separated. The Baltic states came, went and have come again. The African territories suffered civil war after European trusteeship lapsed. The Ottoman Empire's successor states are not models of democracy, Iraq least of all. The creation of Palestine has left the world with its most intractable problem. Nevertheless, given that something had to be done in 1919, the Paris peacemakers did as well as they could under the circumstances. "The peacemakers . . . had to deal with reality," MacMillan writes. "They grappled with huge and difficult questions. How can the irrational passions of nationalism or religion be contained before they do more damage? How can we outlaw war?"

Why they decided as they did MacMillan explains in the most arresting detail. Her book has already won many prizes, and it deserves them all.

John Keegan is defense editor of London's Daily Telegraph and the author of numerous books on military history.

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