- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

Fighting in World War I ended with the Armistice of November, 1918 when Germany effectively surrendered to France, Britain and the United States. But a peace treaty had yet to be concluded. Within only two months the victors' principal political figures began meeting and the Paris Peace Conference had begun. The story of this Conference is an oft-told tale, but almost always focused upon the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. But actually the treaty with Germany was by no means the only job that the victors undertook. In fact, they set out to do nothing less than to reorder a very large portion of the world. In "Paris: 1919," Margaret MacMillan tells how the Allies tried to accomplish all of this and that is what makes the book unique and so valuable.
The principal persons at the Paris Peace Conference included Georges Clemenceau, the misanthropic premier of France; David Lloyd George, the clever and mercurial prime minister of Britain; and Woodrow Wilson, the idealistic United States president. There were others to be sure, Vittorio Orlando, premier of Italy and also some Japanese who occupied subordinate political positions and who abandoned meeting with the others. But these latter only brought aggravation, not solutions, to the table. It was Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Wilson who did the work and made the final decisions.
Think of it. The victors undertook to write a peace treaty with Germany but also to do the same with their other wartime enemies Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. They set about redrawing the borders of all of the defeated nations and took on the task of creating, or at least supervising, a half-dozen entirely new nations in eastern Europe, many of which almost instantly commenced making war on their neighbors over disputed territories.
The Peace Conference restructured the Balkans, invented Yugoslavia, created five new Middle Eastern nations and put Conference selected figures on most of their thrones, and re-distributed many of the African colonies. The victors created the League of Nations, staved off Bolshevism, and arranged for the feeding of starving Europe. At the same time they had to demobilize their armies and, except for the United States, deal with their own nations' near-bankruptcies induced by the enormous cost of the war.
How the victors dealt with all of this is the subject of the book, and the author handles this vast subject superbly. For many years it has been commonplace to view the Paris Peace Conference as an almost unalloyed failure. It was, supposedly, a tale of greed and incompetence which made World War II inevitable and which spawned many other troubles which still continue to surface. But Margaret MacMillan brings new insights to the Conference and its principals. The author's revisionist view of the Treaty of Versailles is an example of her thinking. And she makes a very strong case.
In October, 1918 Germany asked the Allies for an armistice in order for a peace treaty to be concluded. She accepted "as the basis for negotiations the program laid down by the President of the United States." This program was understood to be Wilson's famous "Fourteen Points." In November the armistice was signed. Under its terms the Germans were required to retreat and to partially disarm to the point where it was made impossible for them to resume warfare.
After many months and many internal wrangles the victors drafted a treaty under which Germany was required to forfeit about 10 percent of its territory together with their populations and to hold plebiscites to determine the future of considerable additional territory. The German army was to be reduced to a mere 100,000 men.
Only a tiny navy and no air force at all was allowed. Germany's colonies were all to be stripped from her and the German Rhineland demilitarized. Germany was required to admit guilt for starting the war and to try in its courts or hand over to the Allies all "war criminals" as selected by the victors. Germany had also to make payment (reparations) for the Allied war costs and damages with such charges to be determined by an Allied commission.
Once the treaty was ready it was handed to the Germans who were given a few weeks to make written "observations". The Germans promptly produced a series of notes protesting the almost all of the provisions of the treaty but the Allies declined to alter it in any significant way. To say that the German nation was shocked, horrified, and outraged by the treaty is a massive understatement.
The German view was that they had not been defeated in the war. They had only asked for a peace treaty which was to have been based on the Fourteen Points, none of which said anything about war guilt, war crime trials, reparations or demilitarization. Excepting for the handover of Alsace and Lorraine, the Points contained nothing about plebiscites or territorial and colonial losses. The German plenipotentiaries adopted the legalistic position that the Allies had made a contract with Germany which the victors were now violating. They had been hoodwinked and swindled and would soon be economically ruined!
The German parliament came very close to rejecting the treaty and the Allies came very close to invading when at the final moment Germany caved in, came to the Hall of Mirrors in the Versailles palace and on June 28, 1919 signed the treaty.
Most historians of the Versailles treaty have depicted it as unfair, much too harsh and that more than anything else it precipitated World War II. The author of "Paris:1919" doesn't think so and she is probably right.
To begin with, the Germans were in a poor position to reproach the Allies for a painful peace treaty. The German terms for the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War when they took Alsace and Lorraine from defeated France and extracted a huge indemnity designed to cripple France financially, gave a warning of what Germany was capable. The terms which the Germans had recently wrenched from Russia in the 1918 treaty of Brest-Litovsk were so merciless that only a collapsing nation desperate for any kind of peace would have agreed to them.
The Germans had fought the war under the slogan "Vae Victis" (Woe to the Conquered) and its citizens had constantly been assured that upon their nation's victory every wartime cost would be paid for by their enemies. With all of this as background the Germans had small justification to be outraged by the Allied terms. But outraged they were and stayed that way for 20 years. Adolph Hitler's very first speeches were condemnations of the "Diktat" of Versailles. It was the foolproof crowd pleasing subject and Hitler used it countless times.
But, as Ms. MacMillan points out, Germany actually suffered very little from the treaty. If its military was reduced it did no harm to Germany and upon Hitler's accession the nation had no difficulty in building up its armed forces. As regards reparations, in the end the Allied demands proved to be modest. Germany satisfied most of them by borrowing money from abroad which she mostly never paid back. The territorial losses weren't really so bad. Most of the plebiscites were won by Germany and he colonies had always been money losing propositions.
And when Germany finally decided to ignore the treaty and remilitarize the Rhineland, annex Austria, and co-opt the Czech Sudetenland she simply did it without let or hindrance from the French or British. So at the end of the day the Treaty of Versailles was neither very bad nor very unfair. The only problem was that the Germans didn't see it that way.
The author tells of Versailles but includes much, much more. The reader is taken on an impressive tour d'horizon of all the other Peace Conference work. There are chapters on Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan and its Chinese demands, the individual Arab states and their new Arab rulers, Palestine, and lots more. They are all fascinating accounts, little told or remembered now.
Many mistakes and unattractive concessions were made by the Peace Conference principals. They tried to do too much and it was a blunder to attempt to conclude a peace so soon after war's end when national hatreds were still at a high pitch. But the author's conclusion is that in the end they did about as well, and perhaps a lot better, than could have been expected, particularly in the climate of the times.
Margaret MacMillan is an historian who is provost of Trinity College and the University of Toronto. She is the great-grandaughter of David Lloyd George. Ms. MacMillan has done a magnificent job with this book, which has won a number of important literary prizes in England.
No other book covers this subject in such a comprehensive manner. The author is scrupulously accurate in her scholarship and writes a very readable volume. For history readers "Paris:1919" will be the standard work on the Paris Peace Conference for many years to come.

Richard M. Watt is the author of several books on early-20th century Europe including "The Kings Depart," an account of the Treaty of Versailles and the German Revolution of 1919.


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