“Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” is a book written by Margaret MacMillan focusing on the Paris Peace Conference following the end of the First World War.
When the Central powers collapsed in Autumn 1918, the war had lasted 4 years and the Allied were caught unprepared, having only recently changed their mind in regard to the length of the war, expecting it to go well into 1919 and even 1920. Notwithstanding, from January to June 1919, the 4 Allied powers (UK, France, Italy and the USA) set out to establish the first modern peace in the aftermath of the most bloody and destructive conflict Europe had known in recent centuries.
Germany, the most powerful of the Central powers, had agreed for a cease fire and a peace based upon US President Wilson’s 14 points. The Germans clung to this statement because of their fear of retribution from its immediate neighbours, France and the UK, which had lost millions killed and wounded. From the safe shores of the USA, Wilson had offered to mediate a peace for some time and had published its 14 points as a basis for it, a mix of vague idealistic statements coupled with more specific aims and conditions. Because of their imprecise wording, this list aroused high hopes which led to significant misunderstanding, severe confrontations, and eventually deep disappointments.
Still unaware of this fact, President Wilson sailed for Paris in December 1918, expecting to lead the various European countries to work out a fair and lasting settlement. The resulting treaties (5 in total) would instead prove to be causes for disagreements ever since. In her book, Margaret MacMillan divides the various treaties by geographies: the Paris Peace Conference had to deal with international matters, from rising nationalities in Europe to Germany’s African and Asian colonies, as well as the carving up of the Ottoman Empire.
Being the first modern attempt for such a large scale peace process, the Allied had agreed to first hold a preliminary conference to settle their differences before moving on to the actual peace conference. Yet the complexity of dealing with so many issues and its associated bargaining process slowly transformed the preliminary conference into the actual one as politicians held to their hard won gains.
At the same time, embolden by Wilson’s 14 points, countries sprung and fought out of deceased empires (Russia’s, Austria-Hungary’s and the Ottoman’s) as religions, languages, ethnicity and nationalism merged, erupted and conflicted, fueled by hopes and fears. Thousands of representatives converged to Paris to lobby the Great Powers for their countries or their government, while at the same time the situations on the ground kept evolving -usually much faster than what was decided in France.
The increasing disconnect between the ignorance of key decision makers (including Wilson, Clemenceau or Lloyd George) regarding specific issues and the distance mollifying their actual capabilities to shape the outcome to their wish sometimes made them little more than officials in charge of validating existing outcomes to which they had to come to term with. On top of it, the fact that the common enemy was now defeated meant that rivalry between former allies began to resurface, adding layers of complexity to the bargaining process.
In Eastern Europe, the Russian Empire imploded in 1917 and civil war raged through the 1920’s, while Austria-Hungary disintegrated at the end of the 1918. The resulting void was filled by enthusiastic nationalism leading to the creation of many states, even though this process was hampered by the melting pot of languages, ethnicity, religions and allegiances inside the former Empires. Indeed, where multicultural empires existed with a mix of population living peacefully, the sudden explosion of claims radicalised its people and gave rise to various nation states, leaving many outside the borders of their countries as minorities to get rid of or to be claimed.
Further east, the last remaining empire to have weathered the war besides Britain was dismantled by the various winners. Throughout the war, the Allied were drawn to war against the Ottoman Empire because of the hope that a breakout on this front would weaken the Central power. Then, during their low point in the middle of the war, they promised territorial gains to Italy and Greece to motivate their attack on the Central Powers. On top of it, the British used various schemes to weaken the Ottoman Empire, most notably by inciting the various Arab tribes to rebel in exchange of support for their independence claims.
However, by the end of the war the Great Power were faced with conflicting claims and under pressure from President Wilson to respect local wishes. Britain and France thus refused to honour their pledges to their former allies, pretending to support the various Arab claims for independence but in fact fighting bitterly to divide the region to their will, creating states with rulers on maps, mixing populations and establishing new nations out of sand.
Palestine, where many Jews had already emigrated, was formally established even though it was less out of the spirits of humanism that first moved British support for the Jewish plight than to protect the British held Suez canal and oppose French claims in the area.
In the midst of the turmoil raging though the remnant of the Ottoman Empire, a young officer disobeyed its government order and set out to fight and create a home for Turkish people. Helped by invasions of Italian and then Greek armies, as well as the massive intelligence failure of the British, Mustapha Kemal successfully rallied, equipped and organized the remaining Turks to drive the various foreign armies out of their land, and created modern Turkey, which was to leave its Middle Eastern past to follow European ideals.
In Asia, Japan got the Chinese province of Shandong, the former Germany possession which the Japanese army had invaded. The Chinese delegations succeeded in stirring international public opinion against the take over, but failed to prevent it. Japan, on the other hand, didn’t get any close from recognition of racial equality. For both sides, the peace conference had shown the limitation of Western Powers, and motivated them to follow their own path instead of seeking cooperation with them.
Margaret MacMillan concludes her book with the German peace treaty, a process that was long and painful given the growing estrangement of France and Britain. Clemenceau desired assurances of a thorough defeat of Germany while Lloyd George was seeking to maintain a balance of power on continental Europe. President Wilson, disappointed and disgusted by the bargaining process and the imperialist tendencies of its fellow Allies, retreated and offered little support.
A complex and thorough treaty was thus drawn, which appeared very harsh for Germany and even more so when a clause specifically referred to Germany’s guilt as responsible for initiating the war (a thesis that has been proven to be false by Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers). In fact, the various Allied had agreed that the treaty was enormous, complex and risked serious antagonism from Germany. However, faced with the prospects of having to start over all the hard work and bargaining, they chose to go ahead with it. As a result, the treaty was contested from its very beginning by a nation who felt it had not been defeated.
Overall, with the benefits of hindsight, the first attempt at modern peace is a mixed success. The ideals with which populations anticipated the outcome were at odds with the capacity of Great Powers to apply them or disregard them according to their will. The treaties are a mix between validating existing realities and dividing empires from Paris, and the ability for politicians to shape outcomes was very much hampered, except where they had boots on the ground (for example in the Middle East).
The immediate and most obvious consequence is the Second World War, during which extreme political ideas in the former Central Powers exploited skilfully the peace treaties’ perceived (and actual) misgivings. However, the treaties are not directly responsible for a war only 20 years after they were signed, even though they largely played into the hands of populists. It is rather a potent mix of economic breakdown and estrangement of former Allied Powers that led to a void that Germany took advantage of.
The peace following the Second World War was conducted with much more rigour than the First, and it allowed Europe to build upon it. However, in other parts of the world (namely the Middle East, the Balkans and parts of Eastern Europe) we are still to see how borders will evolve to accommodate the religious and ethnic mixes that have lingered since then. The instability that seems to be a feature of these regions is actually rooted in the various treaties that dealt with the collapse of formidable empires a century ago. The legacy of the 1919 Peace Conference is still haunting us to these days.
Written by Carlito, with additional help from Ludo and Steve
About Carlito Riego
"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi