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…

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