Coming on the heels of the slaughter of millions, the Paris Peace Conference that convened after World War I was a surprisingly civilized gathering of the era’s top statesmen. In the first full-length look at the conference in more than 25 years, a descendant of one of those larger-than life political figures offers a fascinating portrait of the times, the personalities involved and the lasting consequences of their actions.
By redrawing national boundaries and stirring up ancient hatreds, the peace conference for all its good effects set in motion hostilities that still rage today. The complex story is sorted out and eloquently told by Margaret MacMillan in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World. First published in England as The Peacemakers, the book has already won several awards and critical acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic.
Animating MacMillan’s narrative are the key participants: U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Among the supporting cast of diplomats, aides, advocates and hangers-on swirling in and around the conference were future U.S. President Herbert Hoover; Lawrence of Arabia; Polish pianist/politician Ignace Paderewski; Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh (then a kitchen assistant at the Ritz Hotel); future secretary of state John Foster Dulles; and the delightfully adulterous Queen Marie of Rumania. MacMillan spoke to BookPage about Paris 1919 from Toronto, where she is professor of history and provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. The first topic of conversation is her personal connection to the historic event Lloyd George was her great-grandfather. She never met him, she says, and was only an infant when he died. Nor did this relationship provide her access to heretofore-unseen documents. “All his papers are pretty well public,” she explains. “Where [being related] helped, I guess, was that I talked to my grandmother a bit about [the conference] before she died. She’d been over there, so she had some funny stories for me.” MacMillan began researching the book about 10 years ago and spent three years writing it. She says she’s still not sure what prompted the massive undertaking. “It wasn’t my great-grandfather, really. In a way, that would have put me off more than anything else, because I didn’t want to look as though I was doing an act of piety. I was always interested in the period. What really got me started was that I was struck by how many interesting people were there. I think historians are great gossips.” This was the first major peace conference, MacMillan says, in which public opinion in different countries helped shape the negotiations. Approximately 700 reporters from newspapers around the world covered the event.
Of the “Big Three” leaders, MacMillan depicts Wilson as the one most damaged personally by the emotionally charged negotiations. Entering them as the uncompromising idealist with his noble but ambiguous 14-point proposal of how the conflict should be resolved he emerged battered by the tenacious forces of realpolitik. “I was very impressed by Wilson,” says MacMillan. “I think he had the right ideas, and I think he was very brave in pushing them. Where he really fell down and I think it was a character flaw was in not getting Congressional opinion behind him in the United States. In my view, he unnecessarily alienated the Republicans. . . . He tended to treat his Republican critics as if they were traitors and fools which is no way to win people over.” While the French, who had been devastated by the war, clamored for harsh penalties against Germany and while the Germans felt the penalties levied were excessively harsh MacMillan sides with a growing list of historians who argue that the conditions imposed did not, as popularly supposed, cause World War II.
“What’s happened in the past 15 years or so,” MacMillan explains, “is that a number of very, very good historians have started looking at the reparations issue, at German foreign policy and at the motivation of Hitler and the Nazis. Collectively, I think what they have said is, to begin with, that Germany never actually paid that much, that the terms were not unduly harsh, and that Hitler and the Nazis had expansionist plans right from the word go. I don’t think they went out and conquered half of Europe because of the First World War. That is something they would have wanted to do anyway.”