Sunday, August 4, 2013


A review of Margaret Macmillan’s Pairs 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2001)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Margaret Macmillan gives an incredible account of one half of am important year.  That year, 1919, was both a historical and horrible year at the same time.  For centuries the foreign policy of nations had been in the Metternichian school of realism based on the ‘balance of power’ and the winner taking the spoils.  1919, however began with the birth of new kind of foreign policy: idealism.  Wilson and his fourteen points were to rewrite the rules of old and bring forth a more just foreign policy.  No longer were international conflicts about the strong prevailing over the weak in the anarchy of nations, the old ways were to be replaced with sensible law and order with justice as the prevailing principle.  These efforts ended in failure.   
In some ways it was not Wilson’s fault.  Political realism is called that for a reason.  Europe had a long history, far longer than his United States.  The Ottoman Empire first rose to power after finishing off the Byzantine-Romans in 1453, almost forty years before Christopher Columbus went on his first voyage.  Now that Empire was going to die after centuries of decline. Arguing over who deserved to own what after centuries of war, conquest, and re-conquest, was not going to be an easy task for anyone involved.   
The Big four Vittorio Orlando, David Lloyd George, George Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson
Macmillan takes her reader on a guided tour through this year exploring the war torn parts of the globe area by area.  She explains to the reader the basic needs of each interest in the conflict.  Many liked Wilson’s ideas, even if they had a hard time understanding them. 
“Of all the ideas Wilson brought to Europe, this concept of self-determination was, and has remained, one of the most controversial and opaque.  During the Peace Conference, the head of the American mission in Vienna sent repeated requests to Paris and Washington for an explanation of the term.  No answer ever came.  It has never been easy to determine what Wilson meant.” (p.11)
Many who argued ‘self-determination’ in Eastern Europe had a hard time understanding their ‘natural country’ may not be as big as their history told them it should be.  
The German Empire had gone to war against the Allies.  Upon Germany’s defeat the Kaiser was overthrown and a Republic established.  It would have been in everyone’s best interest if the new Republic were welcomed with open arms by victorious nations.  History took a different turn.  France was angry wanted revenge, not just its lost provinces restored—that was going to happen—but France wanted to see Germany humiliated.  France wanted Germany to have to pay reparations and accept sole responsibility for the cause of the war.   
Clearly one of the dumbest men ever to rule a nation, Kaiser Wilhelm II

It was absurd to suggest that Germany was the sole power responsible; it wasn’t even the first to declare war.  However, France had to pay reparations when Prussia humiliated her in 1870.  That was when the German Empire was established with Wilhelm I as Kaiser.  France could not take the defeat and deposition of Kaiser Wilhelm II, grandson of the Wilhelm I, as revenge enough.  They had to have revenge on the German people is well.  The Third French Republic and its allies set the German Republic up to fail. 
“In the dark days of 1917, when the French armies had been shattered on the Western Front and there was and there was talk of collapse at home, Clemenceau the Father of Victory, as the French called him, finally came into his own.  As prime minister, he held France together to final victory.  When the Germans made their last great push toward Paris in the spring of 1918, Clemenceau made it clear that there would be no surrender.  If the Germans took the city, he intended to stay until the last moment and then escape by plane.” (p.31)
I have only one complaint about the book.  Capitalization.  I am sorry but it should be British Empire, Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, etc.  Not British empire, Roman empire, and Ottoman empire.  I know it is a style now but it is one that I think needs to go away.  

Aside from the grammatical style, this is a great book.  It takes you from the rooms of Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George[1], and George Clemenceau, to the frontiers of China and everything in between.  Chapter 1 of the modern world begins here.  Macmillan correctly points out that World War II was not because of the Treaty of Versailles but the history that happened in-between, nevertheless Europe did not receive a good start in 1919.

[1] Even though the author is Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter she has an easy time portraying him as another famous commoner said, ‘warts and all.’  

{Video is by WatchMojo}

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