Sunday, 16 November 2014

Peacemakers - Margaret MacMillan

After a gap of two or three years, I recently revisited this book about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Not only did it turn out to have fewer pages than I remembered, but it is also very wide-ranging, embracing the discussions concerning the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia as well as the "core" European concerns.
The tone is generally entertaining and breezy. It was a good idea to set the scene with character sketches of the main protagonists - Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Indeed these pen portraits, extending to various politicians, diplomats and hangers-on, are one of the most likeable aspects of "Peacemakers". They are supported by passages conveying the "culture" of the conference, and the social activities which went on.
One of the things which struck me was that the "Big Three" were all nominally of a similar political creed - liberals. This, however, did not prevent numerous tensions, antagonisms and disagreements. All were acutely aware that, in addition to forging what they saw as a new international order, they were playing to their respective domestic political and public galleries. The two were not always wholly compatible. Short-term feelings of revenge or schadenfreude might be scant consolation for bitterness and complications stored up for future years.
It was sad to be reminded of the attitudes which still prevailed in 1919 towards people from Asia and Africa, even among self-proclaimed "liberals". This was especially visible in the dealings of the "powers" with Japan and China. At least the Americans occasionally delivered a subtle anti-colonialist dig at the British. Still, double-standards were evident throughout, in the approach of the British and the French. The writing was on the wall, but much British energy was still being expended in seeking to preserve the empire.  Should they have been looking more to the future?
This book also provides an intriguing window on attitudes to the Bolsheviks, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. As Wilson and Lloyd George correctly observed, it was injustice and cruelty which had given to rise to the revolution, but there was also much naivete and wishful thinking about what the Bolsheviks might turn out to represent.
Looking back, it also seems ridiculous for Allied governments to have been contemplating further military involvement in the internal affairs of Russia, after what the troops and civilians had just had to endure during World War One. No wonder there were mutinies and protests. Thank goodness that sanity prevailed before too much damage was done. Any further intervention might have been counter-productive, by spreading revolutionary ideas, and the muddled policies were probably a blessing in disguise. The ones who really benefited were the Soviets, who gleefully used the appearance of Western bullying for propaganda purposes.
How important was the Russia question in dictating how the conference proceeded?  The author rightly points out that the vexing social and economic pressures in Europe were largely independent from what was going on in the East. They would have existed regardless of the Russian Revolution.

The most troubling chapters of "Peacemakers" deal not with Germany, but with the debris of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The frustration of the three major powers over Italy's territorial demands and obstinacy is palpable. On the other hand, the conduct of the Allies concerning Turkey and its periphery seems like little more than shambolic. As mentioned above, the treatment of Japan and China was shabby, and the consequences for the West were arguably just as momentous as those stemming from decisions pertaining to Europe.

As this book went on, I began to lower my opinion of the pre-eminent statesmen (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George), for varying reasons. I suppose that whenever one probes deeply into the lives of prominent people, their negative traits and characteristics become more apparent, and some illusions are eroded.

One of the fascinating things about the conference was that it represented a change-over, or at least an attempt at one, from the old diplomacy to the new way of doing things.  Thus, countries felt they had to cloak unjust territorial or political demands in the clothes of the new order, citing dubious statistics and historical "facts" of questionable veracity.  Still, the disingenuous behaviour of some was hardly less admirable than the double-standards often displayed by the main powers, in seeking to perpetuate their colonial influence and strategic and economic advantages.

The Americans were quite justified in their exasperation at the "secret deals" made by their allies earlier in the war, and the way in which these complicated the post-war negotiations.  However, the thought occurs that they might have been on more solid ground if they had entered the conflict earlier. France and Britain were fighting for their lives before 1917, and in the real world, any sort of expedient or advantage must have seemed worthwhile.

The author makes some persuasive and well-balanced points in appraising the merits of the treaties and the effects of what occurred at the Conference. The Treaty of Versailles allowed Germans to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that it was unjust and humiliating, whilst at the same time its provisions and its implementation, did not do enough to avert future aggression. As MacMillan rightly says, though, the peacemakers could have done worse. They were not dealing with a simple, ideal or perfect world.  A lot of water had still to pass under the bridge during the inter-war years, and World War Two was by no means inevitable. That was how I interpreted her conclusions, anyway!
This is the sort of book which reminds me that much has changed in the past ninety-odd years, but also that much has remained the same.


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