Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 2003
Clark Shilling, Reviewer

It is hard to believe that the four-year centennial of World War I passed so quickly and we are now at the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference. If you are interested in continuing your reading on the Great War and its legacy, I highly recommend Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World as an outstanding account of the effort to end the war and bring peace to a battered world.

Arabian Commission to the Peace Conference and its Advisors. In front, Emir Feisal, Over His Left Shoulder is T.E. Lawrence 

This book was first published in 2001 to wide acclaim. It won the Duff Cooper Prize as an outstanding work in history, biography or politics; the Samuel Johnson Prize for the best non-fiction writing in English; and the Hessell-Timman Prize for history. In addition, it was a New York Times best seller and a New York Times Editor's Choice. The book's original title was Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War. It has also been published under the title Peacemakers: Six Months That Changed the World.

The author is Canadian and is actually a great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George. She received her PhD in history from Oxford University and she has held professorships in History at Ryerson University in Toronto as well as Oxford University. Currently she is a professor at the University of Toronto.

There are several reasons why I recommend this book. First of all, the author is an exceptional writer. Her prose is direct, concise yet colorful, and I found it a very easy and enjoyable book to read.

The second reason to recommend this book is the author's ability to construct vivid character sketches of the statesmen who labored over the issues of war and peace in 1919. In the first part of the book, four chapters are devoted to introducing us to the main cast: Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George, along with their key advisers. The rest of the book is populated by characters such as the Arab Prince Fisal, T.E. Lawrence, Mustafa Kemal, Eleutherios Venizelos, Bella Kun, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Alfred Balfour, Chaim Weizmann, Tomas Masaryk, and Ignace Paderewski among others.

Another thing I especially liked about this book is its comprehensiveness. Accounts of the Paris Peace Conference written by American authors often focus primarily on Woodrow Wilson: his attempts to create a League of Nations, his struggle to avoid compromising his 14 Points, and finally, his failure to get the Versailles Treaty ratified by the US Senate. Other accounts tend to concentrate on aspects of the peace settlement involving Germany such as reparations and loss of territory. Both of these stories are covered more than adequately in this book, but there is so much more. As the author states, in 1919, "Paris was the capital of the world. The Peace Conference was the world's most important business… Paris was at once the world's government, its court of appeals and its parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes."

President Wilson (Seated Center) with the American Delegation

Besides making the treaties with the Central Powers, the work of the peacemakers included creating the League of Nations and redrawing not only the map of Europe, but also that of Africa, the Middle East, China, and the Pacific islands. The author devotes entire chapters for example to the creation of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. She has a chapter on how the Allies attempted to deal with Bolshevik Russia. In addition to these larger countries, she relates what happened in such minute areas of Europe as Montenegro and Albania.

She doesn't just focus on European issues. She includes one of the best brief explanations I have seen of how Japan was awarded the former German concession on the Shantung Peninsula of China, an event which triggered renewed nationalism and anti-western feeling in China. The last third of the book is devoted to the Middle East, and covers the rise of Turkish nationalism, the imperial rivalries between Britain and France in that part of the world, and the creation of a Jewish homeland. Her account of the conflict between Greece and Turkey over Smyrna and the coast of Anatolia that ultimately resulted in the forced exchange of populations is very well done.

Although the title says it covers "six months that changed the world," the author often carries forward the stories told here, some until the outbreak of World War II, and others into the 1990s.

The author points out several key dynamics that drove the peacemakers. First, the collapse of the Central Powers was fairly sudden and unexpected. Before August 1918, few in the Allied camp expected the war to end before 1919. Unlike the Allies in World War II, the victors in World War I did not have a long time to prepare or coordinate their peace plans. Even though they were loyal allies for four years, as soon as the war ended, Britain and France resumed their imperial rivalries over territory in the Middle East. They both cooperated, however, to limit Italian imperial demands.

Scene in the Hall of Mirrors, 28 June 1919

Some events proved beyond the control of the peacemakers such as the Russian revolution and the actions that created Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The Big Three were supposed to participate in a preliminary session to establish goals and priorities and then turn the conference over to the experts and diplomats to negotiate the details. Once started, instead, they turned the preliminary session into the actual peace conference and ran the show themselves. There was a high level of amateurism and a reluctance to take the advice of knowledgeable advisers on the part of the Big Three. Wilson struggled over how to put into practice some of his principles, especially self-determination. Wilson comes across as a brittle, stubborn figure, Lloyd George as the compromiser. Clemenceau appears to be the only one who really knew what he wanted—security for France by weakening Germany.

Professor MacMillan is a bit of a revisionist. She is kinder to the peacemakers than many other historians. Conceding that mistakes were made, she does not see the shortcomings of the 1919 settlement as the direct cause of the Second World War. Instead she blames the actions or lack of actions by the politicians of the 1920s and '30s as the cause of World War II. Another departure from the norm, she does not see the reparations imposed on Germany as the crushing burden that German statesmen, English economists, and later historians have claimed.

The Great War of 1914–1918 was one of the defining moments of the 20th century. It marked the destruction of the old dynastic order that had long governed Europe. The Paris Peace settlements of 1919 tried to create a new world order out of the ruins of the old. While parts of the world order created in Paris in 1919 proved wanting in the 1930s and were swept away in the years leading up to 1939, other parts have survived down to today. To understand the course of subsequent 20th-century history, you need to have an understanding of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Paris 1919 is one of the best places to begin that understanding.

Clark Shilling


  1. I enjoyed MacMillan's book on the war's beginning.

    1. Bryan, I have that volume in my books to read list.

    2. I think you'll enjoy it. These two are bookends.
      Nice review, too.

  2. Excellent review. I'm dusting off my copy as we speak. Cheers

  3. Agree with your comments ... one of my all-time favorite books.