As part of my personal goals to read more nonfiction and to read more about World War I, I decided to finally tackle this book which has been catching my eye for months only to be put aside for shiny new fiction. MacMillan has a new book out that is about the events leading up to World War I so before I committed to that, I wanted to see how I felt about her writing style in this one.
Overall, I really liked it, but some of the information is overwhelming. Now honestly, I don't think there is much she could have done about this because the goals that the Allies set themselves for this Peace Conference were so large that it would have been hard to include everything and not be overwhelmed. Almost every country that could sent representatives and some of the delegations numbered in the hundreds. This conference was a big deal, many smaller, oppressed nations taking hope from the stated goals of the conference, thinking that they may finally get recognition and help. There was no way this could be anything but dense and information packed. Having said that, I think she did a very good job of breaking down the topics and presenting them in a digestible manner, even if she sometimes had to reference things that wouldn't be addressed until later chapters such as when discussing the creations of borders for various states. MacMillan chose to break the book down by areas, focusing on one area at at time, such as the Balkans, Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. As a result, there were quite a few times that I had to remind myself that certain discussion were going on simultaneously but having the book organized by time would have been impossible. Still, the three leaders that were making the decisions (originally Italy was included as part of the Four) were dealing with so many things at the same time it's hard to imagine they had a grasp on anything.
Before diving into the details, MacMillan sets the scene, and introduces the main players and drivers. Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau were the leaders of the US, UK and France respectively, and they would be the major forces in creating the peace treaties. Wilson had published his Fourteen Points before the conference so that terms like "self determination" were in everyone's mouths. As the conference progressed, it turned out that these types of ideas and concepts were much harder to put in practice and define than originally thought. Of course, Wilson's big project for this conference was the establishment of a League of Nations to prevent future wars, and to get rid of secret diplomacy and treaties that he believed led to the Great War to begin with. MacMillan argues that Europeans were actually very receptive to the idea of the League even if they were not nearly as idealistic about it.
One of the things that MacMillan addresses is the accusation or idea that the Treaty of Versailles led to Hitler's rise and World War II. Personally, I think she does a very good job of arguing that the terms were not nearly as harsh as is commonly believed. For example, Germany was asked to pay reparations but at this point in time, this was the normal response to warfare. For example, when France and Germany had been at war in the 19th century, when Germany (or Prussia) emerged victorious, France paid reparations. As a result, the idea of reparations wasn't nearly as harsh as one would believe. Additionally, she demonstrates that the numbers could have been much higher, and the terms were actually rather lenient since the peace makers realized they had to keep them low enough that they could get paid and wouldn't topple the economy. She argues that one of the main problems is that Germany, or at least the common German, didn't realize just how defeated Germany truly was. Even though the country was facing starvation and citizens were striking on the streets, only the top leaders knew that Germany was done. However, since the regular German citizen never saw their country occupied, it was easy to believe that they hadn't actually lost the war in the normal sense, and that the Treaty was thus unfair.
As far as the rest of the conference is concerned, and the borders it created, there were definitely things that were done wrong. For example, certain leaders or representatives were particularly eloquent and won concessions for their countries that may not have been in their best interests or the worlds, and resulted in other countries losing territory. I think Hungary specifically lost a large amount of its land because its borders were handled by three different committees that were all focused on separate countries. While it certainly seems that some countries were put together piece meal, thus leading to unrest even today, in the case of the Balkans, those countries were actually asking to be put together (though Croatia saw themselves as equals to Serbia in a type of confederacy while Serbia viewed it as adding territory to their country). For the most part, I'm not sure what better solutions there would have been. Certainly, the three allies didn't always take their experts into account, but it is hard to imagine any solution that wouldn't have led to problems down the road, especially with countries or disputed areas with very mixed populations. Other countries were basically left with defenseless borders and quickly swallowed up by others.
The main mistakes were definitely made with regard to Asia and the Middle East as MacMillan demonstrates. Since countries like the US were unwilling to support the racial equality clause that the Japanese demanded, they compromised on other fronts, allowing Japan to maintain control of Chinese territory. The Middle East especially was just a mess as countries were created arbitrarily and promises made and broken.
In addition to all the intricacies of the treaties, I learned a few other facts I had not been aware of. For example, I always thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called that because the land of Hungary made up such a large part of the territory, but that it was basically controlled by Austria. As this book shows, by the beginning of World War I, Hungary was basically an equal or partner to Austria. Additionally, while all the other new countries that emerged after the collapse of the empire were not seen as culpable for the empire's role in the war, Hungary also had to pay reparations and was treated as one of the antagonists along with Germany and Austria.
There is so much more in this book as it goes into quite a bit of detail for all the countries (I thought that France was actually rather fair and reasonable in its desired treatment for Germany, and made lots of concessions to maintain their relationships with the US and England) that I haven't even come close to capturing all the topics. It's definitely a good place to learn about the aftermath of World War I, and how this affects even the present day.