Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

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by Margaret MacMillan

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Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize

Winner of the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize

Between January and July 1919, after “the war to end all wars,” men and women from around the world converged on Paris to shape the peace. Center stage, for the first time in history, was an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who…  See more details below


Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize

Winner of the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize

Between January and July 1919, after “the war to end all wars,” men and women from around the world converged on Paris to shape the peace. Center stage, for the first time in history, was an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who with his Fourteen Points seemed to promise to so many people the fulfillment of their dreams. Stern, intransigent, impatient when it came to security concerns and wildly idealistic in his dream of a League of Nations that would resolve all future conflict peacefully, Wilson is only one of the larger-than-life characters who fill the pages of this extraordinary book. David Lloyd George, the gregarious and wily British prime minister, brought Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes. Lawrence of Arabia joined the Arab delegation. Ho Chi Minh, a kitchen assistant at the Ritz, submitted a petition for an independent Vietnam.
For six months, Paris was effectively the center of the world as the peacemakers carved up bankrupt empires and created new countries. This book brings to life the personalities, ideals, and prejudices of the men who shaped the settlement. They pushed Russia to the sidelines, alienated China, and dismissed the Arabs. They struggled with the problems of Kosovo, of the Kurds, and of a homeland for the Jews.
The peacemakers, so it has been said, failed dismally; above all they failed to prevent another war. Margaret MacMillan argues that they have unfairly been made the scapegoats for the mistakes of those who came later. She refutes received ideas about the path from Versailles to World War II and debunks the widely accepted notion that reparations imposed on the Germans were in large part responsible for the Second World War.
A landmark work of narrative history, Paris 1919 is the first full-scale treatment of the Peace Conference in more than twenty-five years. It offers a scintillating view of those dramatic and fateful days when much of the modern world was sketched out, when countries were created—Iraq, Yugoslavia, Israel—whose troubles haunt us still.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The "war to end all wars" ended with a conference that helped spawn conflicts that persist to this day. The 1919 Versailles peacemakers created Iraq, Palestine, and Yugoslavia. They debated Kosovo, Kurdish independence, Islamic aspirations, women's rights, and the threat of communism. Margaret MacMillan's lively, detailed, sometimes mind-boggling narrative of the Paris Peace Conference follows the tangled negotiations to end World War I.

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Chapter 1

Woodrow Wilson Comes to Europe

On december 4, 1918, the George Washington sailed out of New York with the American delegation to the Peace Conference on board. Guns fired salutes, crowds along the waterfront cheered, tugboats hooted and Army planes and dirigibles circled overhead. Robert Lansing, the American secretary of state, released carrier pigeons with messages to his relatives about his deep hope for a lasting peace. The ship, a former German passenger liner, slid out past the Statue of Liberty to the Atlantic, where an escort of destroyers and battleships stood by to accompany it and its cargo of heavy expectations to Europe.

On board were the best available experts, combed out of the universities and the government; crates of reference materials and special studies; the French and Italian ambassadors to the United States; and Woodrow Wilson. No other American president had ever gone to Europe while in office. His opponents accused him of breaking the Constitution; even his supporters felt he might be unwise. Would he lose his great moral authority by getting down to the hurly-burly of negotiations? Wilson¹s own view was clear: the making of the peace was as important as the winning of the war. He owed it to the peoples of Europe, who were crying out for a better world. He owed it to the American servicemen. "It is now my duty," he told a pensive Congress just before he left, "to play my full part in making good what they gave their life's blood to obtain." A British diplomat was more cynical; Wilson, he said, was drawn to Paris "as a debutante is entranced by the prospect of her first ball."

Wilson expected, he wrote to his great friend Edward House, who was already in Europe, that he would stay only to arrange the main outlines of the peace settlements. It was not likely that he would remain for the formal Peace Conference with the enemy. He was wrong. The preliminary conference turned, without anyone's intending it, into the final one, and Wilson stayed for most of the crucial six months between January and June 1919. The question of whether or not he should have gone to Paris, which exercised so many of his contemporaries, now seems unimportant. From Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton at Camp David, American presidents have sat down to draw borders and hammer out peace agreements. Wilson had set the conditions for the armistices which ended the Great War. Why should he not make the peace as well?

Although he had not started out in 1912 as a foreign policy president, circumstances and his own progressive political principles had drawn him outward. Like many of his compatriots, he had come to see the Great War as a struggle between the forces of democracy, however imperfectly represented by Britain and France, and those of reaction and militarism, represented all too well by Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany's sack of Belgium, its unrestricted submarine warfare and its audacity in attempting to entice Mexico into waging war on the United States had pushed Wilson and American public opinion toward the Allies. When Russia had a democratic revolution in February 1917, one of the last reservations that the Allies included an autocracy vanished. Although he had campaigned in 1916 on a platform of keeping the country neutral, Wilson brought the United States into the war in April 1917. He was convinced that he was doing the right thing. This was important to the son of a Presbyterian minister, who shared his father's deep religious conviction, if not his calling.

Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856, just before the Civil War. Although he remained a Southerner in some ways all his life‹in his insistence on honor and his paternalistic attitudes toward women and blacks he also accepted the war's outcome. Abraham Lincoln was one of his great heroes, along with Edmund Burke and William Gladstone. The young Wilson was at once highly idealistic and intensely ambitious. After four very happy years at Princeton and an unhappy stint as a lawyer, he found his first career in teaching and writing. By 1890 he was back at Princeton, a star member of the faculty. In 1902 he became its president, supported virtually unanimously by the trustees, faculty and students.

In the next eight years Wilson transformed Princeton from a sleepy college for gentlemen into a great university. He reworked the curriculum, raised significant amounts of money and brought into the faculty the brightest and the best young men from across the country. By 1910, he was a national figure and the Democratic party in New Jersey, under the control of conservative bosses, invited him to run for governor. Wilson agreed, but insisted on running on a progressive platform of controlling big business and extending democracy. He swept the state and by 1911 "Wilson for President" clubs were springing up. He spoke for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and all those who had been left behind by the rapid economic growth of the late nineteenth century. In 1912, at a long and hard-fought convention, Wilson got the Democratic nomination for president. That November, with the Republicans split by Teddy Roosevelt's decision to run as a progressive against William Howard Taft, Wilson was elected. In 1916, he was reelected, with an even greater share of the popular vote.

Wilson's career was a series of triumphs, but there were darker moments, both personal and political, fits of depression and sudden and baffling illnesses. Moreover, he had left behind him a trail of enemies, many of them former friends. "An ingrate and a liar," said a Democratic boss in New Jersey in a toast. Wilson never forgave those who disagreed with him. "He is a good hater," said his press officer and devoted admirer Ray Stannard Baker. He was also stubborn. As House said, with admiration: "Whenever a question is presented he keeps an absolutely open mind and welcomes all suggestion or advice which will lead to a correct decision. But he is receptive only during the period that he is weighing the question and preparing to make his decision. Once the decision is made it is final and there is an absolute end to all advice and suggestion. There is no moving him after that." What was admirable to some was a dangerous egotism to others. The French ambassador in Washington saw "a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong."

This side of Wilson¹s character was in evidence when he chose his fellow commissioners‹or plenipotentiaries, as the chief delegates were known‹to the Peace Conference. He was himself one. House, "my alter ego," as he was fond of saying, was another. Reluctantly he selected Lansing, his secretary of state, as a third, mainly because it would have been awkward to leave him behind. Where Wilson had once rather admired Lansing's vast store of knowledge, his meticulous legal mind and his apparent readiness to take a back seat, by 1919 that early liking had turned to irritation and contempt. Lansing, it turned out, did have views, often strong ones which contradicted the president's. "He has," Wilson complained to House, who noted it down with delight, "no imagination, no constructive ability, and but little real ability of any kind." The fourth plenipotentiary, General Tasker Bliss, was already in France as the American military representative on the Supreme War Council. A thoughtful and intelligent man who loved to lie in bed with a hip flask reading Thucydides in the original Greek, he was also, many of the junior members of the American delegation believed, well past his prime. Since Wilson was to speak to him on only five occasions during the Peace Conference, perhaps that did not matter.

The president's final selection, Henry White, was a charming, affable retired diplomat, the high point of whose career had been well before the war. Mrs. Wilson was to find him useful in Paris on questions of etiquette.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
CymLowell More than 1 year ago
Why is our world in such a mess today? Why do we have constant political problems in Israel-Palestine, in the Balkans, in Iraq and the Middle East, between the U.S. and France, and so on? Are these issues a result of events happening today or yesterday? All of these issues, and many others, are in one way or another tied to the resolution of World War I, which was, historians tell us, triggered by the assassination of an Austrian prince in Sarajevo. The Germans and the Austria-Hungarians then commenced a war that was largely fought in the trenched fields of France and Belgium. Millions died on all sides, including the Russian front. When the war was over, due to surrender by the Germans before the war crossed the Rhine, the Paris Peace Conference was convened to settle the political fallout. New countries were created, old borders re-drawn, entreaties granted or denied, and the personalities and relationship of Woodrow Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George created a new world order. The war to end all wars, of course, was a failure in many ways, not the least of which the breakout of another war with a generation. Many of the whys and wherefores of the Twentieth Century emanate from the Paris Peace Conference. We see the fallout everyday in the press. Paris: 1919 is a historical masterpiece. In many places it reads like a history book, complete with the author's feelings about the nature of conversations that did or could have taken place. On the other hand, it is an easy read in terms of focusing on the history of places or events that are of interest to you. In my case, I have always been fascinated by Turkey, Israel-Palestine, the Crusades, the Byzantine Empire, Roman and Greek conquest and administration of the area, and so on. These subjects are addressed in the final 150 or so pages. I read each word, riveted by the role that one of my favorite historical characters (T.E. Lawrence, the ubiquitous Lawrence of Arabia) played in the peace process. I found Paris: 1919 to be amazingly thought-provoking. Would the world be a better place today if Woodrow Wilson had had a different personality, or if the U.S. had taken the Palestinian Mandate? Could Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, and Nicholas Sarkozy to a better job if we had a Paris: 2010 Peace Conference? If you wonder about the politics of today, spend a few hours in the politics of 1919-1920 and let your own thoughts soar.
AngelicBlonde More than 1 year ago
This book is about the Paris 1919 Peace Conference following the end of World War I. It is nicely organized and focuses on all aspects of the negotiations. The book is fairly long, due to the high amount of detail that was included. The research the author did was amazing and she included a great deal of information in her book. This is good and bad because I found the book to be tedious to read after awhile. About halfway through I got bored of the book. This is by no means light reading so I only recommend it to people who are genuinely interested in this topic. Otherwise you will probably be a little bored and find this book somewhat difficult to wade through.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Margaret MacMillan won numerous prizes and recognition for her book and with good reason. Her book takes an historical subject, i.e. the Treaty of Versailles, and breaths life and vitality into the intriguing characters at Versailles and beyond. Unlike so many accounts of the much-maligned Versailles Treaty, MacMillan gives the treaty creation process a thorough and honest appraisal. Like all human endeavors, the treaty was a product of its creators, principally Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau, and all the contemporary pressures they faced. The second-guessing and 20/20 hindsight of many modern day authors really fails to appreciate the conditions of upheaval, unprecedented change, and lack of enforcement power on the ground which the peacemakers faced. The book begins with an enlightening, chapter-length personality and character review for each of the three peacemakers. From this segment the reader can grasp the varying perspectives of each leader and his goals for the peace. Wilson wants his League of Nations, Lloyd George sets out to expand the British Empire, and Clemenceau is determined to emasculate Germany's military threat to France. The following part then looks at the popular mandate given to the peacemakers from people all over the world for 'a just and fair peace for all', the question of Bolshevik Russia, the League of Nations, and the concept of League mandates. The remainder of the book is organized by regions with a chapter each covering the more significant nations discussed in the treaty (Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, China, Greece, Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Turkey). And, of course, there is a detailed investigation of the treaty with Germany, which covers territories to be ceded, reparations, war guilt, arms limitations, etc. MacMillan's focus on the individual personalities and their constituent political pressures reveals how and why the treaty's provisions originated. And she does a wonderful job of demonstrating how the enlightened ideals of 'Professor' Wilson quickly clashed with the European world of real-politik, secret wartime treaties, and countless practical considerations. While many new eastern European nations were founded on the principle of self-determination, these new nation-states exhibited a profound capacity to be more aggressive and rapacious than the defunct empires they replaced. Indeed, while the Big Three haggled over borders in far away lands, their decisions were often simply ignored by troops on the ground. (Diplomatic power ultimately rests on military muscle.) In addition, there was still much old-fashioned imperial, land-grabbing camouflaged as League mandates by the victorious European combatants, especially in the increasingly important Near and Middle East. Finally, despite the idealism expressed in Wilson's famous 14 Points, there was certainly no doubt that Germany was really being punished. Despite all its shortcomings, the Versailles Treaty did help millions of people finally realize their nationalist dreams out of the ruins of the defeated empires. Most of these nations still exist, although some countries have further sub-divided into multiple states (e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) while the for other peoples unified national existence still remains but a fantasy (Kurds, Armenians). And Germany, though punished, was treated much better than every one of the countries it defeated (e.g. Russia, Romania). The primary fault with the treaty lay not so much in the German punitive provisions, as the Allied government's later unwillingness to enforce them and the dangerous consequences thereof. In short, this book gives a realistic look about how deals (e.g. international treaties) are really made and what the Versailles Treaty actually created.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Margaret MacMillan, an historian based at Ryerson University, gives us her account of the Paris conference of 1919. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires had all gone, and delegates from thirty countries met for six months to agree Treaties supposed to bring peace and stability. But in fact the British, French, US and Italian governments made all the decisions. And how much peace did the Conference achieve? According to the British officer Archibald Wavell, 1919 was more a peace to end peace. The conference backed the counter-revolutionary war against Russia. Winston Churchill. spurred by class hatred, was the most vicious and slanderous enemy of the Russian people. He boasted about the forces that he more than anyone had sent into Russia, ¿they shot Soviet Russians at sight. They stood as invaders on Russian soil. They armed the enemies of the Soviet Government. They blockaded its ports and sunk its battleships. They earnestly desired and schemed its downfall.¿ MacMillan, to her shame, writes, ¿With hindsight, Churchill and Foch were right about the Bolsheviks.¿ Further, the Conference let Britain and France divide the Middle East into occupied mandates, `telling the Moslem what he ought to think¿, as Balfour said. MacMillan quotes Lloyd George, ¿Mesopotamia ... yes ... oil ... we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine ... yes ... the Holy Land ... Zionism ... we must have Palestine; Syria ... h¿m ... what is there in Syria? Let the French have that.¿ MacMillan likens the end of the First World War to the counter-revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-90: ¿there was the same sense of a new order emerging.¿ But the end of the Soviet Union did not bring peace, quite the opposite: it ended the post-1945 peace settlement and ushered in a period of wars, from Yugoslavia to Chechnya to Iraq. Nor did the 1919 Conference bring a new order, ending war. This is fashionable history seen through the prism of personalities, the `great man¿ approach to history. No wonder that Blair, we are told, liked this book!
BrianIndianFan More than 1 year ago
I first heard about this book on the Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast during his discussion on the first World War. He stated it will challenge your assumption that the "punitive" reparations imposed on Germany were a direct cause of the second World War. Ms. MacMillan - who is the great-granddaughter of former British PM David Lloyd George - has crafted a narrative that makes a convincing argument that there was more to the causes of WW2 than one item in the Treaty of Versailles. The resolution to World War I was just as complicated as the war itself. As Carlin himself has pointed out, WW1 was a collision of the 19th and 20th centuries. This war introduced poison gas and tanks, yet was fought with felt hats and battle tactics that really had not changed since Napoleon was marching across Europe. Against this conflict, there is the rise of ethnic nationalism and the decline of the imperial empires. The war even featured countries sitting on the sidelines waiting to see which side could offer the bigger promises for joining. For six months in 1919, the leaders of the major powers gathered in Paris to settle the peace, divide the spoils and change the course of mankind. Countries across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East sent representatives to Paris in hopes of trying to enlarge their borders or find a home for their peoples. Unfortunately, Wilson's principle of self-determination ran head-long into the rising ethnic nationalism and their accompanying battles over boundaries that had existed ever since the dawn of history. When looked at from almost a century later, it would seem that Lloyd George, Wilson, Orlando and Clemenceau tried to do way to much; in fact, much of the work of settling the peace was delegated to committees. In attempting to settle the world's affairs, MacMillan deals with the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, the vacillation of Lloyd George, the obstinacy of Orlando and the abject bitterness in Clemenceau. As one would expect, the leaders quarreled often, bargained, cajoled and tried to remake the world in the face of a brand new world. If the book gets boring for you, skip immediately to Chapter 30; this is the money chapter of the whole book and sums up Ms. MacMillan's point brilliantly. In fact, although Germany was ordered to pay the equivalent of $33 billion in today's money, it is estimated they paid about $4.5 billion due to a system of bonds. Many of the terms of the treaty were not enforced, and - despite losing the war - Germany remained the largest European country outside of the Soviet Union with a strategic position that was arguably better than it was in 1914. BOTTOM LINE: The book to read to understand the Treaty of Versailles.
55T-Bird More than 1 year ago
“Six Months that Changed the World” might actually take six months to read– but it is well-worth the time spent!  This book is not for the casual history reader but for one who wants the nitty-gritty details of pivotal events (truly world-changing as the title suggests) whose consequences resonate to our present day. So many of today’s headlining news stories have their roots in the events that are the subject of this book.  For that reason, for the person who wants to really understand how we got where we are today and the roles that many of the modern nations must play on today’s international stage, this book is essential reading.  Also included in this book is detailed insight into the many people who  played a part in the Paris Peace Conference.  Knowing the individual stories of these participants provides insight into their motivations during the peace process– this is an important aspect of the story.  The author is honest about her Anglo heritage; knowing her background allowed me to censor what may have been some bias on her part. Be warned however!  There are so many names, places, facts, events in this book that it can become very overwhelming to keep everything straight.  The notation, highlighting and search functions of the digital edition were very helpful and much used by me.
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Beirut768 More than 1 year ago
David Lloyd George (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - Chancellor of the Exchequer), Georges Clemenceau (France's President of the Council and Minister of war - doctor and journalist) and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Prime Minister of Italy - Professor of Law)

Lloyd George also found in WWI England's outlet to avoid in house rebellion against possible autonomy for Ireland.
During that period schism ruled the country threatening to expand to the rest of the British Empire.
LG talked `about the gravest issue raised in this country since the days of the Stuarts', the words `civil war' and `rebellion' was mentioned to describe the grave situation in Ireland.
As Exchequer LG was afraid that post war period would breakdown the whole credit system with London, as world power, at its centre. A wave of financial panic that had started in New York engulfed the main Capitals all over Europe.
At Versailles, Lloyd George had good ear for melodrama, and at 56 by 1919 he looked years older.

Orlando headed the Cabinet after humiliating defeat of Italy's armed forces at Caporetto (Slovenia) on the Austro-Italian front when Austro-Hungarian troops supported (of course) by German units, routed the Italian army and immediately broke the entire Italian front.
The word `Caperetto' gained its defeating resonance in the Italian parlance. (Even Mussolini used it later to describe - and dismiss - any sense of defeatism in the Army - or anywhere within his administration)
Orlando rebelled furiously at such `stigma' and at Versailles demanded (begged) to know if Italy were to be treated as `subordinate' - a point that caused lots of frictions within Italy - or enjoy the spoils of war with proper amenities.
Acting as Catholic chaplain he relied on the Holy See to convey the gratifying news that Italy, although vanquished and tired to the bones, deserved just and fair treatment. His paroxysm of passion burst him into tears many times.
At Versailles, Vittorio Orlando was 59 and came to the meeting overwrought, pale cheeked and white faced; he too looked years older.

Doctor Georges Clemenceau - the Tiger of France - was deluged several times before the WWI broke that Germany was premobilizing its forces at times France was utterly unprepared. (Some French troops were carried to their HQ by taxis)
GC was also obsessed by the civil strife that engulfed Paris in 1914 - when many foreigners suspected of being German spies were arrested and troops came in to control the situation - The events developed violent temper in GC, on several occasions he was heard uttering words like `an idiot ...' `fire the guy...' `He should be torn to ribbons....'.
At the terrible cost of draining French manpower, CG knew well that was an error that would never be repaired. The culprits were the Germans. The wrongdoers were the Germans; the greed came from Germany, expansionism was Germanic. To put an end to this deadlock, Germany ought to be penalized.
At Versailles, George Clemenceau was 79 by 1919 he acted much younger than his age.

The three didn't listen to Woodrow Wilson 14 points; a formidable man of principles, Wilson puritanically attached to neutrality, criticized the Treaty of Versailles that they drafted based on `Revenge. Hate. Fear. Desperation'
It is strange how the three musketeers couldn't perceive how war stifles reforms - greatness at the world stage had been their aim.