Second Chance Reads: Paris 1919: The Six Months that Changed the World


Welcome to Second Chance Reads! In this feature, I review books that, for whatever reason, deserve another chance before being cast into Book Oblivion. These may be books that I couldn’t finish the first time around, that I outright disliked for some reason, or even that I was just distracted from by something shiny. Whatever the case, there’s something about these reads that compels me to revisit them. Here’s the latest one I felt the need to try again: Paris 1919: The Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret Macmillan.

This book has been at the top of my “try-it-again” list since my first failed attempt at it last fall. Mostly because it was one of those frustrating books where it had every reason to work for me, but didn’t. How frustrating is it when that happens? It’s in your favorite subject area, it’s got the characters for you to attach to, the plots to follow and critique and for whatever reason, the ingredients just don’t work the magic they usually do. I tried this last fall and I never wanted to pick it up again once I put it down. But I knew, even at the time, that I was in the wrong mood for it. I knew that I didn’t have the concentration and headspace for it, and that I really wanted a whole bunch of other books that were calling too loudly to me to be ignored. But on my second try, this went much better. Here’s what I got out of it this time:

Paris 1919 focuses on the peace conference that took place at the end of the First World War (or Great War as they would have called it, since they mercifully didn’t know yet that it would need a number). After all was quiet on the western front in November of 1918, the Allies (and anyone else who felt entangled  by the entangling alliances that started this party) sent representatives to Paris to negotiate what on earth they were going to do with chaos that the war had left behind. Dozens of nations showed up at the conference, but of course, famously for a conference that started with Wilson’s declarations that all decisions should be “open covenants openly arrived at,” nearly all of the decisions were made in small rooms, behind closed doors, solely by the Big Three: Lloyd George of Britain, Wilson of America and Clemeanceau of France.

And there was a hot mess of things for them to sort out. Let’s list just a few of them, shall we?: Two enemy empires that had been clinging to life for decades had collapsed (Ottoman and Austria-Hungary), and their constituent parts were either occupied, lawless, or being de facto claimed by various pop-up governments of various radical persuasions. Germany was poor, beaten, waiting in ill-concealed panic for their punishment to be decided on. Russia was absent, consumed by civil war, with its communist ideas already spreading across the continent (Hungary declared a communist government shortly after the war). There were arguments to be sorted out in the Far East between Japan and China, both of whom showed up at the conference, and a Middle East that everyone was just starting to covet now that it became clear that this oil thing was going to be a big deal. Not to mention that the governments of all the figures involved had vengeful and unhappy publics and oppositions at home who could dissolve their governments at any time.

It is no wonder that the conference didn’t officially close until 1920, and there were dozens of smaller conferences in the years that followed to handle just the most thorny of the issues that arouse afterwards. (Lloyd George alone is said to have attended at least thirty-three such conferences before 1924.)

Macmillan takes us thematically through the conference, each chapter dealing with a region of the globe that needed to be “fixed” after the war. Overall, the content is very good. It combines description of the ebb and flow of diplomatic negotiations with analysis of the people involved, showing all the possibilities of what could have been in this situation and then slowly narrowing it down to why what actually happened ultimately came to pass. We get the standard coverage of the Fourteen Points and The Treaty of Versailles. (Presented, as always, as basically “Big Fat Liars” and the “Big Fat Failure”.)

Here’s the glowing place we supposedly started with all these grand promises and pure words, and here’s how it really went. Vengeance and anger and destruction and backdoor deals and the gift to Hitlerian propaganda of the “war guilt” clause. Here’s some ominous music and some pictures of young Hitler holding rallies and the Nazi symbol rising over Nuremberg and it’s all their fault.

Macmillan does this part dutifully. Her major deviation from the standard text is that she believes interwar politicians to be ultimately responsible for World War II and, “the Treaty of Versailles is not to blame” for Hitler. Which of course is true in a banal sort of way, but I found to be a rather bland conclusion. The sort of thing that sports announcers say when somebody misses a crucial catch at the end of the game, and then they remind us that it was a team effort that got them in that position to begin with. True, and in many ways, very kind, but come on now- that missed catch sure as hell helped to seal the deal.

But there were fascinating parts, and they were, in short, everything else. First of all, I loved reading about the other little wars and simmering resentments that the Conference helped ignite. I was fascinated to hear about the sad tale of the little country of Albania, its line-on-a-map birth and the hapless German prince who was put in charge of it before the war and the laughably terrible way its fate was sorted out later. How a local Italian right-winger seized control of the port of Fiume and helped to make it an unlikely symbol of Italian nationalism, even helping to bring down the government rather than hand it over to Yugoslavia or Bulgaria. When boats of functionaries and soldiers from the western democracies watched from their boats and did nothing as Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist army burned and looted the town of Smyrna, with Greeks leaping into the sea and drowning to avoid the flames.

It was these brushfires and aftereffects that fascinated me, not only because many of them were the obvious foundations for later troubles that were to surface throughout the twentieth century, but because they were so unintentional and accidental. They were the clearest proof that the men who had put themselves in charge of fixing the world with at least outward “self-determination” principles knew absolutely nothing about the politics or identify frameworks of the people they were dealing with (and sometimes disregarded it even when they were told- Wilson sent out an inquiry commission into Ottoman lands whose report on Arabian peoples’ desire for independence was illuminating- and entirely ignored). It was fascinating to see the particularly ineffective and insincere mixture of self-interest, political compromise and good intentions (not to mention <i>fait accompli</i> conditions on the ground) that characterized the weird in-between place the west was at in diplomacy at this time.

The second important thing that came to light, especially if you read a lot of chapters straight in a row, was my frustration with Wilson. Of all the major figures at the conference, he put both himself and the reputation of America in the toughest spot. With his Fourteen Points he raised the hopes of people around the world- open convenants openly arrived at, settlements for some of the most difficult regions, disarmament to minimum levels, free trade, and of course, the most popular one, self-determination. Of course, the most difficult thing to sort out was always what “self determination” meant.(For whom? To what degree? What is a legitimate basis for asking for “self-determination”? How do we determine that someone “belongs” to a group and should be placed with them? What if we can’t?). Wilson himself could not answer these questions when they were put to him, and nor, it must be said, could many of the people of whom they were asked, even when they were given the choice to “be” something and join a country of their choice.

But you really get a sense of how many people Wilson disappointed with failure to follow through with his Fourteen Points. Chapter after chapter after chapter of countries and governments who came to the conference counting on America to save them, to give them a country, to protect them from their neighbors, free them from colonial oppression, and country after country, future leader after future leader, found themselves walking out of the conference feeling personally betrayed by the promises that they felt Wilson had made and broken. He held out hope to a lot of people who needed it and then seemed to slowly crush it as he got a crash course in the realities of international politics and the imprecision of his own language. This is the beginning end of the global currency of the idea of American exceptionalism, as far as I’m concerned, we just haven’t gotten the message, about a century later.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed the time out that Macmillan took to humanize the conference participants, and the effort that she made to understand (most of) their perspectives. My favorite part in history books tends to be when historians make me hear their voices like they’re in the room with me. David King, of one of my favorite history books, Vienna 1814, is a master of this. Macmillan also definitely has her moments. One of my favorite chapters is the one about the midwinter break of the conference, which she lets herself have a little fun with the extracurricular amusements going on around the official events. She also does some pretty devastating character sketches when she introduces herself, thus showing herself a fine student of the great British diplomatic histories (Cooper’s Talleyrand is my other favorite that does this). There were some great stories about the Big Three arguing with each other, Lloyd George and Wilson’s delegations forming a little insular group among their English-speaking  selves, and there were great stories about people who would later be famous making an appearance at the conference (a young Foster Dulles, for example, and Churchill and FDR also were both there at various points, Keynes was also there begging for easier economic terms for the Germans, something that ultimately made him quite famous at home and helped to secure some German sympathizers in the UK), and of course the sort of off-color stuff you never expect to hear and always do about the heroes of history books (TE Lawrence throwing toilet paper rolls down the stairs at Lloyd George and joking about bombing Paris with Prince Feisal, Clemenceau showing Lloyd George’s daughter pornographic pictures after a party, the offhand way both the British and French insulted the Italians all the time- <i>“The Italians,” wrote Balfour wearily, “must somehow be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to mankind.”</i>).

But there were some elements that still fell short for me: First, the book’s organization. The thematic nature of it will be useful to professors, but I suspect that I was far from the only reader who might have liked a more chronological approach, showing just how chaotic the conference was. I don’t think we got a really good sense of how much was going on at once, and therefore how many of these decisions were made unbelievably quickly or off-hand, as well as how many of these decisions were interlocked with each other. We needed to see more about how power worked. Secondly, there were some poor editing issues. Macmillan’s style became haphazard at times, and she would toss in an anecdote where it made no sense, and had difficulty with transitions and segues. This needed one more pass with an editor who could make things flow like the amazing, page-turning story this should have been.

Finally, of course, please remember that Macmillan has her biases. She is Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter. She can sometimes unconsciously start talking in the language of the peacemakers (her cringe-worthy and frequently repeated claim of countries “awakening to their national identity” is one that stands out), and like any historian, she has her favorites and her people she dislikes (Wilson and the Italians were particular targets of contempt). Harold Nicolson is a major source for her- remember he was a British delegate with his own biases (much as I am fascinated by that whole family). So remember not to swallow this whole.

But ultimately, if you’ve any interest in European history, World War I, any of the major players, or just how the world got so screwed up today, this isn’t a bad place to start. It is a huge subject that Macmillan does her best to tell with as much color and  detail as possible while still covering the breadth of topics she needs to get to. She provides us with explicit links to the future, showing us how we got from 1919 to the disasters of… well every other decade. I can’t think of another book that sets you up with a foundation for understanding so much about the politics of Europe and provides you with so many different avenues to explore further, depending on your interest. Which is exactly what a stellar generalist history should do. I’m glad I revisited this and I can see myself pulling it down from the bookshelves to read particular chapters here and there to refresh my mind. It’s an impressive project and, in the end, well worth the owning, and for me, the second chance I gave it.