Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

A memorable date…

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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…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 196…

Episode 196

Wow! I think this may be the biggest fall ever in my TBR – down 6 to 225!! Partly this is because I abandoned a couple that weren’t working for me and partly it’s to make room for a bunch of books I’m expecting to arrive in the next week or two. But still! I’m feeling like a winner…

Here are a few more that will be appearing on court soon…

History

In a couple of months, it will be the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War and, it’s often said, paved the way towards the Second. In this highly regarded book originally titled Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan tells the story of the negotiations and decisions of the peacemakers, and disputes some of the commonly held opinions on the outcomes of the treaty. Since I hold those commonly held opinions, she’s got her work cut out to change my mind…

The Blurb says: Between January and July 1919, after “the war to end all wars,” men and women from around the world converged on Paris to shape the peace. Centre stage, for the first time in history, was an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who with his Fourteen Points seemed to promise to so many people the fulfilment of their dreams. Stern, intransigent, impatient when it came to security concerns and wildly idealistic in his dream of a League of Nations that would resolve all future conflict peacefully, Wilson is only one of the larger-than-life characters who fill the pages of this extraordinary book. David Lloyd George, the gregarious and wily British prime minister, brought Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes. Lawrence of Arabia joined the Arab delegation. Ho Chi Minh, a kitchen assistant at the Ritz, submitted a petition for an independent Vietnam.

For six months, Paris was effectively the centre of the world as the peacemakers carved up bankrupt empires and created new countries. This book brings to life the personalities, ideals, and prejudices of the men who shaped the settlement. They pushed Russia to the sidelines, alienated China, and dismissed the Arabs. They struggled with the problems of Kosovo, of the Kurds, and of a homeland for the Jews.

The peacemakers, so it has been said, failed dismally; above all they failed to prevent another war. Margaret MacMillan argues that they have unfairly been made the scapegoats for the mistakes of those who came later. She refutes received ideas about the path from Versailles to World War II and debunks the widely accepted notion that reparations imposed on the Germans were in large part responsible for the Second World War.

A landmark work of narrative history, Paris 1919 is the first full-scale treatment of the Peace Conference in more than twenty-five years. It offers a scintillating view of those dramatic and fateful days when much of the modern world was sketched out, when countries were created–Iraq, Yugoslavia, Israel–whose troubles haunt us still.

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize.

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English Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is a new edition that OWC have published this month, so I slipped it onto my Classics Club list. I feel I may have read it before as a teen, but I’m not sure. So either it’ll all come flooding back to me when I start reading… or it won’t! It’s huge…

The Blurb says: The greatest ‘state of the nation’ novel in English, Middlemarch addresses ordinary life at a moment of great social change, in the years leading to the Reform Act of 1832. Through her portrait of a Midlands town, George Eliot addresses gender relations and class, self-knowledge and self-delusion, community and individualism.

Eliot follows the fortunes of the town’s central characters as they find, lose, and rediscover ideals and vocations in the world. Through its psychologically rich portraits, the novel contains some of the great characters of literature, including the idealistic but naive Dorothea Brooke, beautiful and egotistical Rosamund Vincy, the dry scholar Edward Casaubon, the wise and grounded Mary Garth, and the brilliant but proud Dr Lydgate. In its whole view of a society, the novel offers enduring insight into the pains and pleasures of life with others, and explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, and, above all, human relationships.

This edition uses the definitive Clarendon text.

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Fiction

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins via NetGalley. I chose this one purely based on the blurb and because of the Malaysian setting. It will be my introduction to Tash Aw so I don’t know what to expect, but it sounds good…

The Blurb says: A murderer’s confession – devastating, unblinking, poignant, unforgettable – which reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village and now trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, like many he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.

In the tradition of Camus and Houellebecq, Ah Hock’s vivid and compelling description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It is the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.

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Crime

Courtesy of Vintage Digital via NetGalley. Another debut which claims kinship with some of the greats of contemporary crime writing. The last time I read a book claiming to be “perfect for fans of Peter May” it provoked an extremely blunt review from me. I’m hoping this one will fare better…

The Blurb says: A stunning, atmospheric police procedural set against the grit of Inverness and the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands, this is the first book in the DI Monica Kennedy series.

Sixteen-year-old Robert arrives home late. Without a word to his dad, he goes up to his bedroom. Robert is never seen alive again. A body is soon found on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. Detective Inspector Monica Kennedy stands by the victim in this starkly beautiful and remote landscape. Instinct tells her the case won’t begin and end with this one death.

Meanwhile, Inverness-based social worker Michael Bach is worried about one of his clients whose last correspondence was a single ambiguous text message; Nichol Morgan has been missing for seven days. As Monica is faced with catching a murderer who has been meticulously watching and waiting, Michael keeps searching for Nichol, desperate to find him before the killer claims another victim.

From the Shadows introduces DI Monica Kennedy, an unforgettable new series lead, perfect for fans of Ann Cleeves’ Vera, Susie Steiner and Peter May.

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Classic Club Spin #20

And the winner is…

Hurrah! For the first time in ages, the Classic Club gods picked one I’m actually looking forward to reading!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?