I’d like to make a meta point, first, about this book. As the years pass after some important historical event ends or some world-historical person dies, it often becomes irrelevant what the actual facts of the matter were. Thomas Jefferson is a great example of this, as Merrill Peterson made clear in his masterpiece The Jefferson Image in the American Mind: Jefferson-the-real-person matters much less than Jefferson-the-idea. Jefferson-the-idea changed with the times: depending upon the country’s mood, sometimes he was vilified as a Communist atheist, whereas at other times he was held aloft as the very father of liberty. Jefferson-the-idea had very little to do with Jefferson-the-real-person. Or rather, Jefferson-the-real-person had so many sides that people could choose the one they wanted to emphasize as attitudes shifted.
So it is with the end of World War I. I could argue — not sure if I would, but I could — that the widely believed story of the Versailles Treaty is more important than the actual facts of the matter. The standard story of Versailles would seem to track Keynes’s version pretty closely: Germany was never going to be able to pay the reparations imposed upon it, and the collapse of German democracy followed inextricably. The signing of the Versailles Treaty was a grievous error with world-historically catastrophic consequences.
Margaret MacMillan’s main response to this in Paris 1919 is to widen the lens a bit from just Versailles, to include everything else that was happening a few kilometers away. Practically the entire world was being reborn in Paris that year: Japan wanted the bit of China that Germany had had its hands on; the Austro-Hungarian Empire needed to be divided up; the Ottoman Empire was teetering and finally allowed to fall; Poland had spent centuries being torn between Russia and Prussia and wanted its chance at becoming a living, breathing, independent state; speaking of Russia, the Empire had just ended and been replaced by Lenin and friends; there was this new thing called Czechoslovakia in the making; and of course the West was just learning that the Middle East might have some important resources. The question that year wasn’t just how to punish Germany; it was how to shape a whole new world.
Petitioners of all sorts showed up in France to plead their cases. Germany’s overrunning Belgium had started the Great War, so Belgium believed that it had a special need for security. France had lost well over a million of its citizens, and it demanded a buffer between itself and Germany; this demand was, of course, perfectly reasonable given the centuries of animosity between the nations. And then one ethnic group after another took Wilson’s principle of “self-determination” to heart and believed that it deserved its own nation. Before considering Versailles, consider the unavoidably conflicting demands from each of these groups. Consider, behind each of them, the constituencies back at home: the French citizens understandably thirsty for blood, the British eyeing the French with suspicion and unease dating back at least to Napoleon, or for that matter the Americans who for centuries had taken George Washington’s words to heart:
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…
Americans wished very much to return to this tranquility.
Finally, consider the time-sensitivity on resolving all of these conflicts and settling the German question once and for all. The Allies had not occupied Germany, as they were to do after World War II. And the soldiers were already demobilizing, heading home by the thousands every month. The longer the negotiations took, the weaker the Allies’ bargaining position would become and the less willing the folks back home would be to send their children back to Europe. Time was of the essence.
Bear all of this in mind, says MacMillan, when you read Keynes’s description of the negotiations. You’ll recall Keynes’s vivid portrayals of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson: Clemenceau the Bismarckian French patriot, eager to destroy Germany in repayment for the Franco-Prussian War by which Bismarck birthed the modern German state (Clemenceau was 30 when Paris was under siege and Napoleon III fell); Wilson the naïve, moralizing Calvinist preacher, walking into the negotiations with his principles under his arm, absolutely outgunned at every turn by the wily Frenchman; Lloyd George the unprincipled schemer.
Were the Paris negotiations a failure? You can imagine any number of ways to answer that question. Did people believe at the time that they were a failure? Well, some did and some didn’t. Let’s even suppose that everyone did; even then, maybe you want to be asking a counterfactual, namely: was any other better outcome from the negotiation even possible? That counterfactual (like all counterfactuals) is probably unanswerable.
MacMillan gives answering that counterfactual her best shot, I’d say, and convinces me that probably nothing better was possible. There were too many moving parts, and too many petitioners with too many conflicting demands; there was just no way to make anyone else happy.
But again, to an extent it doesn’t matter whether the outcome was “actually” satisfactory. Consider just the issue of German reparations payments, which totaled 132 billion marks in 1919 (somewhat less, MacMillan notes, than what France paid Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, when the French economy was quite a lot smaller than the post-Great-War German one). MacMillan says that historians have reconsidered whether German reparations were really as crippling as Keynes, and the Germans themselves, made them out to be at the time, but then MacMillan is also quick to note that the Germans certainly believed the reparations were crippling, and Hitler exploited this belief when he campaigned on nullifying the Versailles Treaty. (As of 1950, Meinecke was still calling out the reparations payments, along with the Jews’ rapacity, as a cause of German woe.)
What we really need is a Jefferson Image in the American Mind for World War I: a study of how the war has been perceived, and how that perception has affected subsequent reality. MacMillan’s book is probably as close as we’ll come to that goal in my lifetime: it’s a stunning combination of the facts as they were understood while the negotiations were ongoing, of how the reality was perceived later on, and of how the history played out in the decades that followed. There’s basically one chapter per involved nation (Japan, China, Turkey, etc.), each of which ends with a couple paragraphs noting how the 20th century worked out for Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Syria, and the rest. Spoiler alert: it often didn’t work out very well.
Whether Europe, the Middle East, and Asia could have been carved any better at the joints to avoid the nightmarish century that followed is an inherently impossible question, but MacMillan’s attempt at answering it is magisterial.