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5.0 out of 5 stars Masterly, 26 Jan. 2010
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This review is from: Peacemakers Six Months That Changed the World: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (Paperback)
A superb and very readable account of the policies and personalities of those who concocted the peace settlement at the end of the First World War. The general story will be known to most who have an interest in the period, but here we have details that will be known to only a few. The pen portraits of Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau are excellent and flesh out the picture that many readers will already have of them, but so are those of participants the names of whom figure in few text-books, like Billy Hughes, the coarse prime minister of Australia, or Prince Saionji and Baron Makino of the Japanese delegation, to mention just a few. And there is a wonderful set piece near the end about the closing scenes at Versailles.

The negotiations and the differences between the peace makers are set out in lucid detail, together with the nicely ironic comment, often as asides in brackets. The author pilots us skilfully through the complications of the Balkans, and only the treatment of the admittedly tortuous developments in Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq) are a little on the stodgy side. There are model succinct summaries of the past history of the areas under discussion, and equally succinct ones of what happened to them after the peace treaties, right up to the present day.

As at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, there is constant mistrust among the peace makers: France did not want a strong Italy; Britain (looking back to the rivalry before the Entente of 1904) distrusted France; Italy constantly tried to thwart the new Yugoslavia and was in competition with Greece. It should be no surprise to any student of politics that double standards were constantly in evidence: statesmen who had got what they wanted described the demands of others as `greedy' (except, unfortunately, for Lloyd George who was bewitched by Venizelos of Greece, possibly the greediest of the lot). There was the sordid haggling over the allocation of reparation payments from Germany, with contempt being shown to little Belgium's claim for a fair share of them. The high-minded and high-handed Wilson simply overruled the majority vote in one of the commissions that the Covenant of the League should include a racial equality clause proposed by the Japanese. He then compensated the Japanese with another betrayal of his own principles by accepting the Japanese claim on Chinese Shantung.

Macmillan is particularly illuminating on the Japanese. They were initially included in the Supreme Council which made all the decisions, but were then simply dropped. The service chiefs in Britain and the United States were already contemplating that one day they would have to go to war with Japan - not altogether surprising, since Japan was clearly already set on expansion.

But the Supreme Council often gave only cursory attention to areas outside of Europe, and did not listen carefully to what experts could tell them. This accounts to a large extent to the shambles they made in the Middle East. The consequences, as far as the Arabs were concerned, took some time to show themselves; but the stupidity of the peace makers' dealings with Turkey proper were quickly exposed by the success of Kemal Ataturk, who swiftly destroyed the Treaty of Sèvres which had been imposed on the Sultan.

Only Clemenceau wanted the League of Nations to have `teeth': he saw it first and foremost as an organization to prevent future German aggression. The other members of the Supreme Council were not prepared to sacrifice any of their sovereignty; and even President Wilson, for whom the League was of greater importance than anything else, knew that Congress would never stand for giving the League real power and did not press for it.

Macmillan concludes that Germany was actually better placed after the Versailles Settlement than it had been in 1914: Poland was now a barrier against Russia, and in the South East there were only small states instead of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is presumably what Andrew Roberts had in mind when he commended the book as `splendidly revisionist and daringly politically incorrect'. Splendid though this book is, I can see only one other sentence, on p. 476, that would merit that description, and it is one of only two sentences in the book with which I disagree: if you read article 231, you can hardly say, as she does, that this has been inaccurately described as `the war guilt clause'.

My other disagreement is that the Sykes-Picot Agreement had not promised Palestine to the French (p.427): only the Upper Galilee. The rest was to be under joint British-French-Russian protection.

I cannot fully agree with the author's conclusion, which might perhaps be called revisionist. So many parts of the Peace Settlement left time-bombs, many of which detonated in the Nazi period and some of which (Kosovo, Iraq, Israel-Palestine) are still detonating today. Some of the advice which the peace makers received, but ignored, warned them of the dangers. But Macmillan thinks that the main responsibility for allowing them to detonate lies with the decisions taken or not taken by the next generation, not with the peace makers: `They tried, even cynical old Clemenceau, to build a better order. They could not foresee the future and they certainly could not control it. That was up to their successors.'

These very few criticisms aside, I have nothing but praise for this fine achievement.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Jan 2010 21:10:17 GMT
Ralph -

you are quite right in underlining the questionable character of Macmillan's statement that Germany was actually better placed after Versailles (than before). Economically, such a statement is wrong, because Germany was stripped of the coal basin of Upper Silesia and an attempt was made to strip her of the Saar coal mines as well (Hitler later bought them back for 900 million gold marks).

Politically, the independence of Poland, the Baltic States etc. was not the result of Versailles: it had come about through the peace treaty of Brest-Litowsk which the Central Powers concluded with (Soviet) Russia in 1917. It is interesting to note that as soon as Poland had been re-established, she turned on her neighbours (Lithuania, Russia, Germany) trying to get yet more land, and almost ruined herself in the process. She also grabbed a portion of Czechoslovakia - the Teschen area - when that state (another creation of Versailles) fell apart in the spring of 1939.

TD

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jan 2010 07:40:32 GMT
"Fell apart" is somewhat of a euphemism for the destruction of Czechoslovakia by Hitler!

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Feb 2010 08:54:01 GMT
Ralph -

Your statement on the demise of Czechoslovakia is so much blunter than your detailed and thoughtful discussion of the Macmillan book that it prompts me to elaborate on the matter more extensively:

The political entity which constituted itself a few weeks before the end of WW1 and was later put on the European map under the designation of Czechoslovakia was a most diverse construct comprising not only Czechs and Slovaks but also ethnic Germans (practically as numerous as the Slovaks, i.e. some 3 million each out of a total of about 15 million inhabitants) but also Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians, to name only a few. Nobody had asked the "minorities" whether they wanted to be part of such a state, and many of them did not.

Things came to a head when the ethnic Germans, in 1938, became restless and wanted to join the Reich. This movement was certainly favored by Hitler (and many ordinary Germans, including people who otherwise did not like Hitler and his party) and was eventually consecrated at Munich in the autumn of 1938.

The Munich agreement did not bring an end to Prague's woes, however, because within a month, Poland struck a first blow and annexed the Teschen/Olsa region, with the rest of the world seemingly not taking any notice of such a blatant act of aggression. Hungarian claims were settled by the Vienna agreement in early November, 1938. At the same time, the Slovaks obtained a status of autonomy, and the eastern tip of the country, called Western Ruthenia or the Karpatho-Ukraine, was made an independent region within Czechoslovakia.

The final break-up occurred in March of 1939 when Slovakia claimed and obtained independence. Hitler then forced the Czechs to accept the status of a German protectorate for the remaining territories (a.k.a. Bohemia and Moravia), with a certain degree of autonomy but with a German governor in Prague. It must be remembered, though, that this status kept the protectorate completely out of WW2, the Czechs did not have to do military service for the Germans, the lands were safe from allied bombing raids and the inhabitants enjoyed a higher standard of living than the Reich; in 1945, the Protectorate stood essentially undestroyed.

While it is obvious that Hitler was instrumental in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, we must not forget that when the country was reconstituted in 1945, the Karpatho-Ukraine was absorbed by the Soviet Union. The instability and internal tensions of the new state would show up once again, and certainly without any nefarious influence from Germany, when the Soviet bloc fell apart twenty years ago: Slovakia immediately became independent once more, and the western part of the country formed the present state of Czechia.

TD
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