Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Margaret MacMillan.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Random House New York 2001. NF; 06/12.

I don’t read much history and took only one university course in it, so most of the major events of the 20th century have been informed for me by television and old movies (for the first half) and personal experience via the media (for the second half).

I had no idea, for example, that the Treaty of Versailles was controversial in its impact, no idea who the main players were, and didn’t know that such things as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia first appeared in 1919, only to disappear again.

Margaret McMillan is a senior (in both senses I suppose) historian, born in Canada and educated in Toronto, now professor of history at Oxford. The book won some awards, partly I’m sure because her writing is lively and holds the interest of a determined moderately informed reader. We get salacious if slightly donnish characterizations of glamorous over-emotional Queen Marie of Rumania, Lloyd George’s 16-year-old daughter belle of the Paris-hotel ball shortly sent packing to boarding school by her dad, and many others. Most of the serious players and some of the buffoons get that fiction-character treatment as Ms. MacMillan rolls out the incredibly complicated story of the peace conference.

Over half the paragraphs end with a superscript, leading to a list of references which (I’m sure, although I stopped short of tracking any of them down) support the facts and probably the glimpses of bizarre, famous, fascinating personalities under pressure. She keeps the history interesting and the human interest credible. Balance. The kind of thing I have a feeling they teach you at the University of Toronto.

I found this long book hard going in places, and was happy for the maps it contained. I’m as familiar with geography as I am with history, and so had to keep going back over the Balkans, the Middle East, and even the orientation of the West and mid-European countries. I have a bit better grip on that now.

The main controversy, which she deals with (again with that scholarly balance) all through the book but doesn’t directly address until the very last few pages, could be called “Who’s the Bad Guy?” I like her (I believe minority) conclusion: Germany. Between the lines I read that popular opinion through the 1920s and 30s, and probably most of the latter part of the 20th century, suggests that the League of Nations and Europe fell apart because Woodrow Wilson failed to stick to his national self-determination conviction, and that there was too much old-fashioned imperialism still alive and well in the 1919 conference. MacMillan lets us know that the three main players (Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau) were in impossible circumstances: partially-informed in spite of the advice of hundreds of experts, differing among themselves in respect of philosophy and personality, conflicted (among wanting to do the right thing, needing to compromise among themselves and with others, and clinging to office by keeping their constituents happy), and finally lacking as we all do and always will information about the future.

The humiliation of the beaten Germans at the signing of the peace treaty is rendered with some emotion, but so is the subsequent covert illegal military buildup in Germany that began almost immediately as “flying clubs”, heavily armed police forces, and factories producing tractors with suspiciously unnecessary armor and caterpillar tracks. Clemenceau’s behavior on behalf of France reflects the French conviction (is it still so?) that Germany is hell bent on world domination. For this naïve non-historian, it puts the horrible bombing of Germany at the end of World War II, for example, in a bit different perspective than I had before.

I come away slightly better informed. But I’m not sure how not to despair at the conflicts and half-truths I’m afraid we will never escape. A philosopher friend told me the other night how proud he is of his daughter’s new PhD in philosophy (from the University of Toronto of all places). Her topic was cooperation, and the problem (which I’m sure she dealt with masterfully) is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

We’ll both come out better if we trust each other. But the hell of it is we don’t, because we can’t. 8.8/7.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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