Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

A memorable date…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The 28th of June 1919 is one of the very few historical dates I never forget. One hundred years ago today, the victors and vanquished of “the war to end all wars” gathered in Paris to sign the treaty that brought the Great War officially to an end – the Treaty of Versailles. On the same day, in a small town in the north of Scotland, my grandmother gave birth to her youngest son, my father, conceived while her husband was home on leave from that war. Twenty years later, the world would be plunged into another devastating war, and my father would spend six years of his youth fighting in it.

The generally accepted view is that the harsh terms meted out to Germany in the Treaty contributed to its economic collapse, creating the conditions in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and thus were a major contributory cause of the Second World War. In this book, Margaret MacMillan looks in depth at how the Treaty was formulated and argues that, flawed though some of its terms were, the peacemakers did as well as they could in fairly impossible circumstances. She goes further, arguing that the reparations demanded from Germany were not as punitive as previous historians have suggested, and can’t be seen as having led directly to WW2.

I’ll start by saying MacMillan failed to convince me of the latter, but mainly because I felt her argument was based on something of a false premise. In fact, I felt she over-emphasised the importance that history has given to the reparations element of the Treaty, thus enabling her to knock down an argument that few people would make in quite such black and white terms, except as a convenient shorthand. I was once tasked at University with writing an 800-word essay on the causes of the First World War, and found it an impossible task because how can one possibly condense so much complexity into such a tiny word count? (MacMillan herself took 500 pages to do it, in her later, excellent book, The War That Ended Peace.) Saying that the reparations in the Treaty of Versailles caused WW2 seems to me the equivalent of saying that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused WW1. It’s true, but not the whole truth.

The Big Four – David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.

In fact, though, her argument is only a tiny part of the book, crammed into a few pages at the end. The bulk of the book is a detailed look at the negotiations that led up to the Treaty and, like the war itself, ranges far beyond western Europe in scope. Macmillan first introduces us to the main peacemakers – the heads of government of the Allies. She sketches their characters and explains their motivations as they sat round the table – Wilson of the USA and his desire for a League of Nations, Lloyd George trying to defend and expand Britain’s empire, Clemenceau of France, after repeated Franco-German wars desperate to take this opportunity to crush Germany so it couldn’t represent a future threat, and Italy’s Orlando, out for a land grab of the other side of the Adriatic.

MacMillan then takes us around the world, nation by nation, explaining how and why the peacemakers decided to carve them up and reshape them in the way they did. Some of their motivations were altruistic, to protect minority ethnic populations within nations and to give (some) peoples the right to self-determination. Some were designed to build a bulwark between western Europe and the newly revolutionary Russia. Some were simply a matter of expedience – the art of the possible. And some were frankly down to national greed and expansionism. Many of the decisions they made are still reverberating today, such as the uneasy amalgamation of different ethnicities and religions crammed together and called Iraq, or the decision to create a Zionist homeland for the Jews in land belonging to the Palestinians. The dismissive treatment of Arabs and Asians, and non-white people generally, isn’t unexpected but it’s still breath-taking in its arrogance, and we still pay the price for it every day. That’s not to say that the peacemakers could have somehow waved a magic wand and made all these problems disappear, and to that extent I agree with MacMillan. Even at the time, though, many warning voices were raised but ignored.

Spectators climbing over furniture to watch the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

MacMillan writes well and clearly, and spices the dry facts up with anecdotes that are revealing about the various personalities involved in the process. I’m afraid I have to admit shamefacedly to being far more interested in the major western powers than in all the little nations in the Balkans and the splintering Ottoman empire, so I found some chapters considerably more interesting than others, but that’s down to my biased worldview rather than MacMillan’s writing. While I found it tedious to learn all about these amalgamated countries which were created after WW1 only to disintegrate again post-WW2, I found that many of the sections gave a great deal of insight into the origins of some of our on-going problems today – Syria, Palestine, Iraq, even the background to the philosophical reasoning behind the rise of ISIS, although this book was published in 2001 before that became a thing. Closer to home, it also explains a lot about what happened in western Europe over the next couple of decades, and in the US and the Far East, too, to a degree. Perhaps the scope is a little wide, so that some parts, such as Japan and China, felt rather shallow and rushed, but that in itself gives some idea of the immense complexity the peacemakers were forced to deal with in a short space of time.

Overall, then, although I found it hard going in places and found myself unconvinced by MacMillan’s attempt to absolve the Treaty from its role in contributing to WW2, I learned enough to make it well worth the time spent reading it. Sometimes, though, I think historians shouldn’t work quite so hard at finding a “revisionist” angle…

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34 thoughts on “Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

  1. I thought this might have something to do with the Treaty of Versailles. Needless to say, for us in Romania, it has always been viewed as a glorious moment, when all the Romanian states finally became independent and united, but I have lived in Austria and I have Hungarian friends who view it all very differently. And that’s not even talking about the Germans…

    • Yes, it was interesting to see how some countries felt they’d gained while others were outraged. And the arrogance of the “Powers” was incredible – as if they were playing some kind of board game! I don’t know that they could have really done much better given the circumstances, but it must have been obvious even at the time that they were simply storing up problems for the future…

      • Erm… need I say Potsdam and Yalta after the Second World War, when they also played a bit of a board game with Europe and allowed half of the continent to fall under the Communist dominance whether they liked it or not? It has been ever thus, I fear…

  2. It would feel significant to have such a historical event linked to your father’s birthday. When I am looking at my family history over the late nineteenth and and early twentieth century, I do pay particular attention to when the men were born as an indicator of their possible involvement in the world wars (and have noted the impact on women as well, I had ‘spinster’ great aunts who never married after their beaux were killed in WW1).
    This does sound like a fascinating account, I’m particularly interested in the discussion of the long-lasting ramifications of the treaty decisions. I probably won’t find (or make) the time to read this unfortunately, despite my interest.

    • Yes, I’ve always felt that Versailles was “my” treaty because of the link, and my brother was telling me he’s reading this book this week too, so clearly he feels the same. When I researched my own family, it was saddening how many of the men had spent their youth fighting in one or other of the wars. My paternal grandfather was a career soldier, so he was in everything from the Boer war to the Raj to WW1. He died long before I was born (a consequence of all these wars was that the men in my family tended to start their families pretty late in life so the generations are hugely stretched) but I wish I’d had the chance to talk to him and learn what it was like – dates on paper tell so little of a story. I know my fascination with the Raj and empire springs from wanting to know more about him and his generation.

  3. Oh, that’s fascinating that you have such a personal link to this date, FictionFan. You make such great points about this book. If a central argument of a book isn’t really convincing, it is harder to accept the whole book as easily, even if that argument is only one part of the book. So I can see how your reaction was impacted by her argument that the Treaty wasn’t as important a cause of WWII as scholars think it was. I’m also interested in the different ways in which she treats the Western democracies and other countries. As you say, our modern world is still paying the price for those attitudes… All in all, it sounds like an interesting read, faults and all. And I like the idea of going into detail on some of the various countries involved in the treaty.

    • Yes, it’s always made me feel as if Versailles was “my” treaty! I understand why historians feel they have to make an argument and come up with some original slant, but sometimes I think that can skew what otherwise is a soundly-researched work. I felt she avoided that pitfall in her later book on the causes of WW1, but I think this one was very early in her career so she probably felt she had to make her mark. The arrogance of the “Powers” was pretty breathtaking, although it is quite hard also to see exaclty what else they could have done. But it sometimes felt as if they were playing a board game with the world as their board…

  4. Excellent review! Thank you for sharing your personal tie to the date (100 years ago today!). Interestingly enough, I was just researching the Munich Agreement and the dawning of WWII, so I can’t help being intrigued by the Treaty of Versailles at the close of the Great War.

    • Thank you! I’d just like to point out that obviously my father was 79 when I was born… !! 😉 It’sodd – I know a fair amount about the years before WW1 and after WW2 but very little about the years in between. I need to try to fill that gap. Have you read Ribert Harris’ Munich? It’s a fictionalised account of the Munich Conference, but very well researched and accurate – it made me feel like a fly on the wall…

  5. Good question about the tendancy to come up with a revisionist approach. I suspect with academics who are on the staff of UK universities find it essential – they are expected to publish papers/talk at conferences on a regular basis just to keep their jobs. So of course they have to come out with new angles all the time.

    • Yes, I think that’s a very good point. But I feel it sometimes means they stretch too far and can actually undermine the value of their own work. Here, I thought this was very well researched and presented, but since I didn’t agree with her it stopped it from being one of the greats for me.

  6. It’s only been with the recent centennial of the end of the war and having read several historical fiction novels from the time period that I’ve taken much interest in WWI. I’m always hesitant about “revisionist” approaches to history, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about this.

    • Because I’ve always been aware of our tenuous link to the Treaty of Versailles, plus because so many men of the family fought and sometimes died in WW1, I’ve always been interested in it historically, but wary of reading fictional accounts. It’s only recently I’ve read much fiction about either of the wars – I’ve tended to avoid them most of my life. The revisionist angle in this wasn’t a major feature, so I was able to feel I’d got quite a lot out of it anyway, despite not agreeing with her argument…

  7. Wow, I imagine having such a personal connection with this phase of history might make a book like this more interesting for you. And, while parts of it do sound interesting to me, I’m not sure I’m up for such a heavy tome during the summer months. Lazy, I guess!

    • It does, Debbie – the link has always made me feel as if Versailles was “my” treaty! But this book is quite dry and I found parts of it hard work despite my interest, so it’s not one I’d be forcing on other people. So you’re safe! 😉

  8. I enjoyed your personal anecdote, FF. This books sounds like it was on the dry side, and I can understand your points about the treaty and this author’s argument. It’s fair to say I don’t think this book is a good fit for me, but I’m glad you enjoyed it well enough and learned some new things. ♥️

  9. I’d just like to point out that obviouly my dad was VERY OLD by the time I was born… 😉 Yes, I found it interesting but definitely dry in places and I found it quite hard work. So you’re safe – I won’t be pushing this one on anyone who’s reluctant…!! 😂

  10. This does sound fascinating FF, but probably a bit too heavy-going for me at the moment. I’m on the look-out for light reads! What an immense task they had, and what problems it caused. But as you say, they had a pretty impossible task…

    • I actually read it a couple of months ago fortunately, since the actual anniversary coincided with my reading slump – a rare instance of successful forward planning! Yes, I think it’s easy to criticise them (and I do!) but honestly, I’m not sure what they could have done that would have been much better…

  11. An impressive review of a complex subject but one which we need to contemplate periodically, especially in view of stupid comments about Brits surviving two world wars and therefore being able to survive anything that can be thrown at them.

    • Thank you! Haha, yes, agreed, but I must say I do also wonder why we seem to have lost so much self-confidence that a huge swathe of us seem to think we can no longer survive as a nation on our own. As a staunch middle-of-the-roader, I find both attitudes baffling…

      • I have a couple of MacMillan’s books that I’d like to read, this being one of them. I expect I’ll find the same as you – that there’ll be some parts more interesting to me than others. Books like this often make good ‘second books’ for me.

        • Yes, I suspect most people will find bits that interest them more than other bits. There’s a fair amount in it about Canada! I read them as second books too, just a few pages each day, so it takes me ages to get through them. But I think reading them slowly actually makes the info stick in my head a bit better… well. some of it anyway! 😉

  12. Just reading this review makes me think this author bit off way more than she could chew. Also-why would anyone want to say just one thing over the other created a world war? It’s hundreds, if not thousands of circumstances and experiences that cause these kinds of things, don’t you think?

    • Exactly! No one thing ever causes war – if it was that easy we’d be better able to avoid them! The actual bulk of the book was fine though and she covered a lot, but I felt the “revisionist” bit was only really there as a hook.

  13. This sounds fascinating. I’d actually like to learn more about that period in the Balkans etc. because I feel like we (in Canada) get so much of the North American and Western European perspective. We mostly study WW1 as being a major step in Canada asserting itself independently from the British Empire.

    • I always feel bad that I’m so uninterested in the Balkans, but somehow my eyes glaze over as soon as they come up in a history book. I blame school! 😉 Isn’t it interesting how we’re all taught our own aspect of events? Here, it was years before I really realised the war was more than just European countries – though in retrospect the name should have really given me a clue… 😉

      • My grandmother came from Eastern Europe (though not the Balkans) so I’ve always felt an added interest in the region. We didn’t cover any of that in school though, even WWI wasn’t officially on the curriculum! 20th century history apparently started with World War II but I had a teacher who thought we should know about both wars.

        • Ha! In my day, modern history ended at WW2! And even then it was so recent most of my teachers had lived through it, so we got the simplified version – Britain good, Germany bad, nobody else was important… I do feel we covered WW1 in quite a lot of depth, though – both the causes and the actual war, although again with the emphasis very much on Western Europe. I always reckon it takes a hundred years for historians to be able to write history objectively.

          • A hundred years sounds about right. It would be so interesting to be taught by those who actually experienced the war but I can see how they wouldn’t be exactly objective. The main personal stories I’ve heard from WWII are my grandmother who was in her early 20s in Canada and went to a lot of dances with soldiers. From her perspective, the war was not so bad at all!

            • Ha! My mother was in the ATS (women’s branch of the army) and she talked fondly of her war days too… those dances must have been good! 😉

  14. And in the interests of providing Too Much Information, 28 June 1914 was the day that Franz Ferdinand and Sofie his wife were assassinated at Sarajevo, thus providing one contributing cause to the Great War. Also, 28 June is observed in Poland to remember the Poznań protests of 1956 which were the first of several massive protests against the communist government of the Polish People’s Republic. Poland was abandoned by the West at the Debacle of Yalta and suffered 40 years in Soviet captivity before regaining its independent status which was initially implemented by the events at Versailles. I know this is brief but its interesting how the same days appear again and again, isn’t it?

    • That is fascinating – thank you! I’m surprised I’ve never made the connection with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – it was another bit of history I was fascinated by as a kid, mainly because I thought the name Gavrilo Princip was so exotically romantic! 😉 Yes, it’s always interesting to follow the links through history – all kinds of odd things lead on to other apparently disconnected things. Maybe if we could reset to the beginning, like in a computer game, we could play it better next time…

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