2002 December 29 Sunday
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Jim Hoagland has written a quick review of the foreign policy books of 2002 that he found most noteworthy. Particularly interesting is Margaret Olwen MacMillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.

MacMillan shows that the conventional analysis of the allegedly overly harsh treatment of Germany in defeat is wide of the mark. The partly defeated aggressors were left aggrieved but still powerful enough to seek and obtain revenge and domination. That was the great mistake of 1919, and of 1991.

"Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles, although he found its existence a godsend for his propaganda. Even if Germany had been left with its old borders, even if had been allowed whatever military forces it wanted" and much else besides, MacMillan writes, "he would have still wanted more," including the destruction of Poland, the Soviet Union and Jews everywhere.

The Washington Post has an excerpt from the book focusing on Woodrow Wilson.

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."

John Keegan has written a review.

So frequently do current events, particularly in the Balkans but also in the Middle East, take us back to the Paris Peace Conference that MacMillan's book often reads like a commentary on the daily newspaper. Does the newspaper reader wonder why Serbs and Croats are ready to fight over trivial slivers of territory, or why the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq are happy not to be ruled by Baghdad, or why the Czechs and Slovaks, after living together in apparent amity for 80 years, have recently decided to go their separate ways? MacMillan, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, explains the reasons.

Hew Strachan has written a review in Foreign Affairs of both 1919 and of 14-18: Understanding the Great War. Of the reviews linked to in this post Strachan's is the most interesting.

Whereas 14-18 is a slim, distilled work, MacMillan's Paris 1919 is more weighty -- a sustained study of six months' hectic negotiating as the allies tried to reach consensus among themselves on the demands that they would make of the defeated Central Powers. The fact that the peace settlement could not deliver on the more utopian strains in its agenda was not itself, MacMillan argues, the cause for its ultimate failure. Nor would she agree with the authors of 14-18, who believe that the undoing of the peace conference lay in the contradiction implicit in the participants' use of World War I to justify the proceedings while endeavoring to make war impossible in the future. Rather, MacMillan is much more indulgent of the statesmen of 1919. She believes that the failure of Versailles was due less to the bickering, vengefulness, and far-flung sentiments prevalent in 1919 than to the irresolution of the negotiators' successors and their unwillingness to enforce the settlement's terms.

Writing in the LA Times William I. Hitchcock argues the book and recent history demonstrate that lasting peace is very difficult to achieve.

MacMillan's fine work reminds us just how hard it is, even for great powers, to hammer swords into plowshares. Today, at a time of unprecedented American power and global reach, our record of manufacturing peace has not been especially strong either. Those recent settlements that have worked, such as in Bosnia and Kosovo, have held together only because of the presence of large numbers of U.S. and NATO soldiers to enforce an uneasy truce. In Afghanistan, our efforts at nation building are incomplete at best. In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, half a century of determined peacemaking efforts have gone unredeemed. Meanwhile, there are some 60 armed conflicts going on in the world today, and the United States is either powerless or unwilling to stop them.

The failure of the post-WWI settlement to prevent another war should be viewed as a lesson in humility for our own efforts to change the direction of the political development in other countries. The upcoming US invasion of Iraq will result in a much more total defeat of the Iraqi regime than the defeat that Germany suffered in WWI. The occupation of Iraq will therefore provide the United States with a much greater ability to reshape that society than the victors were able to do to Germany after the first world war. However, that does not guarantee that the United States will ultimately be successful in transforming Iraqi society and politics to the degree that some war advocates now predict will be possible. The cultural differences between Germany and the other Western powers were not as great as the differences between Iraq and the West today. Some of the differences (eg Islam and tribally oriented family structure) make the creation of liberal democracy in Iraq very problematic.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 December 29 01:24 AM 

Invisible Scientist said at December 29, 2002 12:34 PM:

The real issue is not whether Hitle would still have
been equally aggressive had the Versailles treaty
been less cruel to Germany, as the article rhetorically
asks. I do completely agree
that Hitler would have been the same Hitler. But my
belief is that Hitler and the Nazis would not have
come to power, if Germany had experienced a significantly
less devastating economic misery after WW I.

Bob said at January 3, 2003 4:15 PM:

While do not have enough direct knowledge to form an opinion myself, I happen to be reading F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Hayek, as a first-hand oberserver, believed collectivist influences in German politics at the time made totalitarianism inevitable. ie. If not Hitler, then someone else would have seized the reins.

lin zhenkang said at September 20, 2004 3:27 AM:

may i know if hitle did not go to war because the of Treaty of Versailles,why did he go to war for?plz replay asaps

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