Book Review: Paris 1919

In the foreword to Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan, Richard Holbrooke argues:

In the headline version of history, the road from the Hall of Mirrors [where Versailles treaty was signed] to the German invasion of Poland only twenty years later is usually presented as a straight line. But as MacMillan forcefully demonstrates, this widely accepted view of history distorts the nature of the decisions made in Paris and minimizes the importance of actions taken in the intervening years.

I think Holbrooke is overstating the case here. MacMillan does state in the last chapter:

Later it became commonplace to blame everything that went wrong in the 1920s and 1930s on the peacemakers and the settlements they made in Paris in 1919 …. Eighty years later the old charges about the Paris Peace Conference still have a wide circulation. “The final crime,” declared The Economist in its special millennium issue, was “the Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms would ensure a second war.” That is to ignore the actions of everyone — political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters — for twenty years between 1919 and 1939.

I agree that the popular impression of the importance of Versailles treaty in starting World War II is wrong. However, reading about all the provisions of the different treaties, one sees a lot of the issues that started the second war. Despite MacMillan’s conclusion, she never does make a good case against a relationship between the Paris Peace Conference and World War II.

The book however does provide a good view of the peace conference and what went on there. The most interesting thing about the book are the anecdotes and quotes. For example, the chapter about Greece is titled “The Greatest Greek Statesman Since Pericles,” referring to British Prime Minster Lloyd George’s praise of Greek Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos.

One thing I would have liked more of is a discussion of how the peace treaties affected the future of those countries. Usually, there is only a paragraph or two of somewhat shallow analysis at the end of each chapter. I understand that this is a book about the peace conference and a good discussion of later history would have made it huge (it is already 570 pages), but that’s how I feel.

Another interesting thing about the history of 1919 is the attitude of the leaders of the great powers towards non-Europeans. It is clear that they do not consider others to be equal to Europeans in any way. In most cases, they did not think that those primitve people were capable of self-rule. They were also much more likely to decide on the fate of a non-European people based on imperialist and colonialist ideas.

Although I don’t follow the soc.history.what-if, two alternate timelines intrigued me.

  • What if Japan got the racial equality clause in the League of Nations covenant but did not get Shantung in China or the Pacific islands? Would Japan have turned nationalistic and militaristic? I don’t know much about Japanese history, but this has aroused my interest. Please recommend any 19th-20th century Japanese history books.
  • What would have happened to the Ottoman empire if Eleutherios “The Greatest Greek Statesman Since Pericles” Venizelos had not overextended Greek claims? Would Ataturk have risen as a leader? Would Smyrna (Izmir nowadays) still would have more Greeks than Athens?

Any ideas, Ikram Saeed?

UPDATE: Also see my post about Woodrow Wilson.

Categorized as Books

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Thanks for posting about this. I was reading a library book entitled The Realities of America-Palestine Relations by Frank L. Manuel published in 1949. I thought the book would be interesting because it describes the story leading up to the creation of Israel without any foresight as to future relations between, say, the USA and Israel.

    The book includes some treatment of the Paris negotiations as they relate to the disposition of the Ottoman Empire. The author, Manuel, is unrestrained in expressing his preference of the outcome—the creation of a Jewish state—but I was still a bit startled to see how minor a role Arab residents of the region play in the narrative. It really does seem as if Manuel fails to recognize the Arab population as existing except as a vague reactive force, something without proper names or any self-articulation. This, until page 313 when Abdul Aziz bin Sa’ud meets with FDR.

    And that’s it. The book itself is 378pp.

    I read a bit of the MacMillan book while reading this one by Manuel; but I think the real problem was that, in the mandate region, promises were made to all over the place that were un-keep-able.

  2. James: I agree about the contradictory promises made during the war. MacMillan talks about them in the part of the book about the Middle East.

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