6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
, 26 Jan. 2010
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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