Note: This review is long. The book was long and interesting, so the review is long, but may not be interesting.
I love history, but I’m not a diligent scholar. My history knowledge is thin and wide spread with occasional deep dives. I have been fascinated by the events that led to World War 1, but didn’t know much about the Paris Peace Conference that dealt with the end of the war. Last year I listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, “Blueprint for Armageddon.” At the end of it I wanted to know more about the end of WWI. I asked on Facebook and fellow Cannonballer, Jen K, suggested Paris 1919. I opted to get the audio version narrated by Suzanne Toren, which is 25 hours of narration. I put off listening because I had burnt myself out on Carlin’s 22+ hour, 6 episode series. You should definitely listen to Carlin’s series, but it is intense. You should also read or listen to MacMillan’s book. It is less intense, but not less interesting.
One of the themes Dan Carlin focused on in his podcast series was how ill prepared the generals, leaders, and militaries were for the weaponry of World War I. World War I was envisioned as a 19th century war, but fought with modern weapons. Carlin argues that the modern world was born from WWI. I disagree. The way I read history, Modernity had arrived and the war deflected it for a time. Before 1914, there were strong movements in many countries for worker’s rights, women’s rights, universal sufferage, and racial equality. The war effort was a great way to deflect and suppress in most countries, though not all. World War I destabilized the world and at the end, millions were dead or displaced, Russia was engulfed in civil war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed, Germany’s colonies were up for grabs, and the Ottoman Empire was to be dismantled. Borders needed to be redrawn, countries that hadn’t existed for years were reborn, new nations appeared, and groups of people around the world were clamoring for Wilson’s promised right of self determination. The Paris Peace Accords were necessary and important, but once again 19th century men were unprepared for dealing with the modern world.
The United States, Great Britain, France, and occasionally Italy lead the Peace Conference. The personalities of Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Vittorio Orlando dominated the conference and set the stage for conflicts that are still happening in the world. Wilson announced in his famous Fourteen Points speech in 1918, that he wanted a new diplomacy that would ensure a “fair and just peace.” He wanted to avoid the kind of secret treaties that had drawn the European countries into war. The Fourteen Points also put forth that principle of self determination should be used in the redrawing of boundaries of Europe and the territories of the former Austro- Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The idea of self determination grew far beyond what Wilson intended and he expressed dismay at it’s interpretation world wide. Many peoples took it to mean that they should have a choice to govern themselves. Wilson meant more that some consideration should be given to their opinion when deciding who would govern them.
Despite all being intelligent men, Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando were unprepared for the complicated world they were supposed to divide. Racism, 19th century colonialism, fear of Bolshevism and Islam drove their decisions far more than Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Wilson was an unapologetic racist who was loathe to give too much to the Japanese or Italians for fear of strengthening Japanese American and Italian American groups at home. He wanted nothing to do with what was know then as the near east or the Middle East. Lloyd George and Clemenceau were primarily concerned with recouping their economic losses during war and shoring up their colonial power. Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau all wanted to keep Orlando in check and Italy wanted to expand it’s territory, and keep Greece and Yugoslavia small and week. Everyone wanted to keep the Bolsheviks at bay. France, having been severely battered by both the Franco Prussian War and WWI, wanted to keep Germany weak. The expectations Wilson raised with his Fourteen Points contrasted with the many disappointments that were delivered began a legacy of mistrust in the United States.
It has been generally agreed that the burden of reparations placed on Germany led directly to the rise of Hitler and WWII. MacMillan suggests that the story may be more complicated. It was also generally agreed that the decision to not march into Germany allowed “stab in the back” myth of Germany’s defeat to flourish. This was why the Allied Powers converged on Berlin at the end of WWII, so there would be no mistake that there had been a military defeat. The Germans were not invited to the Paris Peace Conference. They had taken Wilson’s Fourteen Points to heart and convinced themselves that a) it hadn’t really been a defeat, so b) the Peace Conference would deal with them lightly. The new German Republic was unprepared for the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and felt betrayed by Wilson in particular. I am focusing more on Wilson because I am American, but the other three, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando are as much to blame for what the Treaty of Versailles wrought as Wilson.
When the Treaty of Versailles was finally completed, Woodrow Wilson exclaimed with great pleasure that the Treaty was, “the greatest work that four men have ever done.” Wilson and Clemenceau died during the 1920’s. Lloyd George was a supporter of Germany until it was clear that Hitler was going to fight with Great Britain. He died in 1945. Orlando initially supported Mussolini, but broke with him. His political career restarted in the post war years until his death in 1952.
My only regret about listening to this as an audiobook was the lack of maps. I want to see all the maps.