Paris 1919

By Margaret MacMillan

The “revisionist” label has been so frequently applied to new works of history you have to wonder what’s been left to revise. A case in point is provided by this excellent new book, which takes as its subject the efforts made by the Big Powers after the First World War to create a lasting peace. The received wisdom has long been that received from the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose Economic Consequences of the Peace argued that the bungling of the Paris peacemakers, and especially their leveling of crippling reparations on Germany, would lead to disaster. The disaster came, and Keynes became the guru of the next round of peacemaking, with Bretton Woods his anti-Versailles.

MacMillan will have none of this. That the Treaty of Versailles was the major cause of everything that went wrong in the 1920s and 1930s “is to ignore the actions of everyone – political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters – for twenty years between 1919 and 1939.” In hindsight many mistakes were made, especially in Asia and the Middle East, but at the time the peacemakers probably made the best they could of a bad situation. More to the point, the significance of what they actually did has been overstated.

Paris 1919 is a fascinating book in the way it makes the case, almost unconsciously, against the importance of its subject. The debate over the amount of the German reparations, for example, is, as it should be, front and center. This was one of the most important issues on the table. But the final number arrived at, some $33 billion, was practically meaningless. In the final reckoning, Germany may have paid only $4.5 billion, “probably slightly less than what France, with a much smaller economy, paid Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.”

MacMillan remarks that in “one way the figures matter; in another they are completely irrelevant.” What mattered was the appearance, not the reality. Germans thought they were being ruined by reparations that, in the end, none of the allies had the will to collect.

The same disjunction between seemingly important decisions of global consequence and the actual facts on the ground is found everywhere. The map of Europe was never redrawn at Paris. For the most part it had already been redrawn. New nations like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had already been formed. And the overstretching greed of such Imperial wannabes as Italy and Greece were to be brought up short by reality. No amount of sympathy for the Armenians could prevail against the new Turkey. It was only in regions too weak and divided to resist (China, much of the Middle East) where what was done in Paris could be said to have “changed the world.” And that was a change for the worse.

But while the historical importance of what the peacemakers did is open to question, Paris 1919 is nevertheless an absorbing book. Its great strength is its breadth, achieved through MacMillan’s skill at sketch work (of personalities and geographical regions). Her argument that the actions of the peacemakers have to be judged on the basis of the actual contemporary political and social realities is assisted by this development of the necessary context. In addition, a subtly exercised and balanced sense of judgment informs the whole. Intended for the general reader, it makes its way without indulging in any overly technical analysis or, despite the revisionist label, making any shattering new revelations. The result is a surprisingly quiet yet compelling work of history.

Review first published online February 14, 2003.