The Book of the Week is “Paris 1919, Six Months That Changed the World” by Margaret MacMillan, originally published in 2001. In penning this large volume, the author gained access to “horse’s-mouth” documentation, largely thanks to meticulous recording of the peace conference’s participants’ every verbal exchange in more than two hundred meetings for three months, beginning in late April 1919.
After the usual needless deaths and ruined lives brought on by a war among a large number of diverse peoples (of different histories, religions, languages and cultures)– in the whole first half of 1919, the hegemony-possessing countries of the world engaged in complex, emotionally heated negotiations meant to achieve world peace. Alas, human nature intervened.
By the end of the extravaganza, there were nearly sixty commissions and committees that tried to put their two cents into the Versailles Treaty– that primarily tried to make Germany pay for its WWI aggression.
Throughout, the negotiators experienced the five stages of psychological loss theorized by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Desire for: revenge, and financial and territorial compensation were the order of the day. Of course, those were the reasons for going to war, too. This was not unlike the political situation in 2020 in the United States between its two major political parties which have been fiercely fighting a roughly forty-year war; amid an epidemic, and a work-in-progress-national-healthcare-system.
One power-exercising technique used by certain local American politicians is to allow their citizens the option of wearing a mask (allegedly a preventive measure in spreading the current epidemic; a humiliation ritual that lacks significant scientific evidence for its existence)– giving the appearance of restoring a freedom the citizens lost.
The politicians can then see the proportion of people who are still fearful of contracting or spreading the disease. They can then further their abuse of power accordingly by imposing or reimposing such a tool of oppression on a whim!
Another example of the mentality of power-hungry nations of the last hundred years comes in the form of a ditty– a parody of “This Land” –Woody Guthrie’s song about the United States:
This land is my land, and only my land.
If you don’t get off,
I’ll shoot your head off.
I’ve got a shotgun, and you don’t got one.
This land was made for only me. Not you.
Anyway, each participant in 1919 Paris had largely similar arguments for their demands (unsurprisingly, the colonizers presented fanciful statistics as facts as part and parcel of their propaganda):
- millions of their people made the ultimate sacrifice in the war.
- the war-winners thought they were entitled to take back territories they had previously colonized (euphemistically calling the authority to recover them “mandates”) because peoples living in those territories weren’t sufficiently sophisticated to govern themselves (i.e., they were inferior, uncivilized), and
- Statistically or ethnologically, there were significant populations of the conquering peoples in the sought-after cities or regions; likewise, the land had historically been theirs, or else it had been on a trade route important for their economic survival.
Except for a short break in March, American president Woodrow Wilson was physically present in Paris the whole time. He pushed for his idealistic agenda of “Fourteen Points” and a League of Nations.
The latter was supposed to be a group of countries that agreed to militarily protect each other in the event they were attacked. Pacifists felt that members should agree to get rid of their weapons and refrain from fighting in the first place.
Postwar, France favored the League. Feeling vulnerable, she was seeking to make nice with nations that had the resources she needed to feel secure: Russia for manpower, and Great Britain for naval and industrial strength. In general, the English-speaking peoples of the world wanted to believe in the rule of law– that wronged peoples could obtain recourse through international agreements and tribunals.
By April 1919, South African leader Jan Smuts had drafted a proposal for the League. The plans included neither a military force, nor a tribunal. Not much would get done anyway, because a unanimous vote would be required to make decisions.
Early on at the conference, Italy was beginning to exhibit the Fascism it would become known for. Poet, playwright and WWI hero Gabriele D’Annunzio oozed charisma, but his jingoistic bragging about Italy was based on nothing but energy and ego: “Victorious Italy– the most victorious of all the nations– victorious over herself and over the enemy– will have on the Alps and over her sea the Pax Romana, the sole peace that is fitting.” He passionately demanded that his country should get, among other territories, the town of Fiume, strategically located on the Adriatic.
By March, the peace talks had been narrowed down to four countries whose representatives (arrogant drama queens, all) would hammer out the documents that described the terms and conditions, benefits and limitations that would, it was fervently hoped, keep peace in the future. However, they snuck in vague language to invite loopholes.
Those four consisted of France, United States, Italy and Great Britain; in the form of statesmen Georges Clemenceau, Wilson, Vittorio Orlando and Lloyd George, respectively. The leaders were obligated to consult dozens of other treaties and agreements, usually between pairs of countries, that were signed on an ongoing basis during and after the war. A large number of agreements had been signed in secret.
Just a few wrenches in the works of the good-faith talks included:
- In 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia had begun creating a new society in which people would live happily ever after. But they were committing atrocities to do it.
- The Balkans weren’t particularly interested in forming one big, happily family called Yugoslavia; they were comprised of Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Bulgarians and Macedonians; arguably Greeks and Romanians, and a slew of minorities; a few pairs of which hated each other, and
- The Ottoman Empire was breaking up; in late 1918, hapless Hungary was militarily invaded by Bolsheviks, and in summer 1919 by Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
Read the book to learn who swayed whom and why and how; the fates of: Shantung, Turkey, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Smyrna, Kurdistan, Armenia, Germany; of the personalities involved; and of numerous other political footballs.