Almost 100 years ago, world leaders met in France at the end of World War I to negotiate the terms of Germany’s surrender and create a new world order. What occurred over the next few months would not just define the order of the day, but redound decades into the future. Indeed, nearly a century after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, we are still living with those fateful decisions. To understand today’s geopolitical challenges, a book I love, Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919, is indispensable.
The primary fallout from the treaty negotiations is well known. Germany was saddled with the burden of paying massive reparations that crushed its economy and led to the rise of Hitler, sowing the seeds for the next world war the peace conference was set up to avoid. But what MacMillan does so effectively is suss out the rest of the story. While not wreaking the destruction of World War II, the countries carved out of the destruction of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires have been a source of unending trouble from Serbia to Saudi Arabia.
Huddled in the background were future leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Ho Chi Minh, who would be the heirs to the decisions made by the Western powers. Countries were created out of whole cloth and spheres of influence adopted with little concern or understanding of their long-term ramifications. It would take decades for the British to reap the whirlwind of their Palestine Mandate, the French to fight a war in Algeria, and America to do whatever the fuck we did in Iraq, but all of these events flowed from the choices made during this fateful event.
Bestriding the Paris negotiations was a giant among men - President Woodrow Wilson. Heralded as a great peacemaker and greeted by adoring throngs when he arrived by ship to lead the U.S. delegation he ended up being the final casualty of the war, shriveled and mute less than a year later. Wilson’s decision to send American troops into the mix had given the Allies a decisive advantage but his cunning and cajoling could only take him so far. Wilson was squeezed in a classic pincers movement; his European partners had their own demands that ran counter to his beliefs and the U.S. Congress knee capped his attempt to form the League of Nations. As a final insult to injury, Wilson suffered the stroke that left him limp and lifeless while on an aggressive whistle-stop train tour of America trying to shame the U.S. Senate into approving the League of Nations.
It is a rare book that so aptly captures historical scope - McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, Lukas’s Big Trouble, Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem - but MacMillan’s work is in that league. It is an important book if you want to understand our world even if the events she writes about occurred just shy of a century ago.
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