From Canadian historian MacMillan (Women of the Raj, not reviewed), a lively and thoughtful examination of the conference that ended the war to end all wars.
After more than four years of carnage on a scale the world had never before seen, WWI ended with an exhausted Germany asking the exhausted Allies for an armistice based on American President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic formula for a just peace. The resulting Paris Peace Conference of 1919 aimed at redrawing the map of a Europe in which the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires lay ruined, and rearranging a world in which new nations were struggling to emerge from those moribund colonial empires. Diverse characters came to Paris, including British Arabist T.E. Lawrence, Greek patriot Eleutherios Venizelos, Poland’s Roman Dmowski, and Japan’s Prince Saionji, but MacMillan (History/Univ. of Toronto) focuses on the complex relationships among the three disparate personalities who dominated the Conference: Wilson, French premier Georges Clemenceau, and British prime minister David Lloyd George (the author’s great-grandfather). Bringing them vividly to life, MacMillan reviews the conference’s considerable failures and accomplishments. In hindsight, the punitive disarmament and reparation terms imposed upon Germany and the accommodation of Japanese claims to Pacific territory can be seen as setting the stage for the rise of those nations’ militarism. The creation of colonial mandates in the Mideast and betrayal of Arab nationalists who had fought for the Allied cause led to tensions that plague the world today. However, MacMillan disputes that the Paris arrangements led directly to WWII; decisions made afterward, she argues, were more significant. The peacemakers made mistakes, she concedes, but “could have done much worse.” Among the Conference’s real achievements were the fashioning of seven European countries and Turkey out of the detritus of failed empires, the development of an International Labor Organization, and the creation of the League of Nations, which presaged the rise of the United Nations.
Absorbing, balanced, and insightful narrative of a seminal event in modern history.