Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The title of this book refers to the six month period after World War I, when all the countries involved in the war, and many who were not, descended on Paris to negotiate the peace treaty, later to be known as the Treaty of Versailles. The three central figures shown on the book cover were Woodrow Wilson (USA), Lloyd George (UK), and Clemenceau (France). Vittorio Orlando (Italy) rounded out the "Big Four" but he and his country acted more like the little, whiny stepbrother that the older brother and his two buddies had to invite to along in order to play 2 on 2. These three central characters had an enormous task, which was bound not to succeed 100% due to the endless numbers of variables involved in the negotiation.

The three themes most present in the negotiations were borders, ethnicity and reparations, with the first two often being related. What became clearer while reading this book is how before the Great War the modern day definition of borders did not exist. This was mainly a result of colonization outside Europe and the size of the Austria-Hungarian Empire (AHE) inside of it. After the fall of the AHE, Europe found itself with certain ethnic groups scattered throughout the continent who before had lived under the umbrella of the empire. Such examples included Germans in Romania and Italians in Croatia. Defining the borders and determining where these ethic groups should live was an impossible task, especially in Yugoslavia. The repercussions were still being witnessed in the Balkan War 80 years after.

How to handle the reparations was the other critical issue to be resolved during the six months in Paris namely by determining how much money Germany needed to pay the UK and France. Demand too much and the German economy would become crippled, too little and they would rise to power again too quickly. The overarching question was how the Big Four, through reparations and new border alignments could ensure Germany became strong but not dominant. History confirms that an outright answer in 1919 was not readily available.

The majority of the chapters in Paris 1919 are written about each individual country involved in the negotiations. The sections on Greece and Turkey were particularly fascinating. Others, such as the tension in China and Japan, seemed out of place. I say this because the reader is led to believe that the majority of the focus will be centered around the three main figures (just look at the cover) and how they would negotiate with Germany. I was left without a true feeling of what was driving these three individuals. Equally, the sections on Germany were not much more in depth than those on the rise of Ataturk in Turkey. The conclusion focused entirely on Germany, while the book was truly international in its scope. This is understandable considering the events which would follow twenty years later. However, the "German question" did not come across as the outright, central theme of the book as the conclusion leads the reader to believe.


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