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Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

By Margaret MacMillan

Random House, 570 pages, $53

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Imagine a movie, its star-studded cast playing characters such as Ho Chi Minh, Syngman Rhee, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Feisal, John Maynard Keynes, Harold Nicolson, South Africa's Jan Smuts, Canada's Sir Robert Borden, the vampish Queen Marie of Rumania and the world-famous pianist-turned-politician, Ignace Paderewski.

The locale is Paris, the time-frame January to June, 1919; the setting, the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles; the score, foxtrots and tangos. The real stars are an American president, Woodrow Wilson, and three prime ministers -- the United Kingdom's David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, the legendary tiger of France, and Vittorio Orlando, a fiery little Italian with irredentist claims to his country's neighbouring Adriatic coast.

This is no movie, but history -- history as never before told. Broad in scope, magisterial in detail, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919 (originally published last year in England as Peacemakers) is a compelling, funny and ultimately tragic narrative.

The victorious Allies of the Great War assembled to settle accounts with Germany in the same Hall of Mirrors where, 58 years before, Bismarck had proclaimed the German Empire. Paris's surplus palaces would be stocked with delegates from the defeated Central Powers, and the conferees would conclude treaties apart from Versailles: St. Germain with Austria, and Neuilly with Bulgaria in 1919; Trianon with Hungary, and Saint Germain with the former Ottoman Empire in 1920.

Delegates from almost every nation in the world flocked to the city of light. The signal exception was Russia. In the throes of a civil war, Red armies embattled against White, its Bolshevik government was not asked to attend. The Allies, MacMillan reminds us, feared revolutionary contamination. And Lloyd George, as his foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, complained, was "a bit of a Bolshevist himself."

Woodrow Wilson arrived in December, 1918, with his Fourteen Points. ("God himself had only 10 commandments," Clemenceau commented.) Some of the points, like the liberation of Belgium, had been succeeded by events. Others -- open covenants, freedom of the seas and Wilson's hobbyhorse, the League of Nations -- appealed to the vanquished but not to the victors. Then as now, Macmillan points out, American exceptionalism irritated America's friends. Aghast when Wilson demanded that the press be allowed access to the Big Four's deliberations, the French vetoed that. It would be, Clemenceau declared, "suicide."

To Clemenceau, Wilson resembled a petulant cook -- baggage in the hallway, always threatening to go home. Lloyd George, attempting to take the president's measure, listed his good qualities to a friend, "kindly, sincere, straightforward," adding in the next breath that he was "tactless, obstinate and vain." Clemenceau warmed to neither the U.S. president nor the British prime minister. "I find myself," he quipped in a comment that made the rounds of the conference, "between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other."

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"Yes, we have won the war," Clemenceau mused, haunted by the spectre of a resurgent Germany, "and not without difficulty; but now we are going to have to win the peace, and that will perhaps be much more difficult." The oldest of the leaders at 78, a survivor of the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, he would also survive an assassination attempt at the peace conference. In February, when a half-mad anarchist tried to shoot him in the back, Clemenceau, like a later French leader, would complain of his assailant's poor marksmanship. Only one bullet out of seven hit him, lodging between his ribs. It would stay there for the rest of his life. Colleagues noted a decline in the tiger, a loss of concentration. But he remained as obdurate as ever.

Lloyd George, fresh from the triumph of the "khaki election" of December, 1918 (with its slogan "Hang the Kaiser!"), negotiated between the idealistic Wilson and the vengeful Clemenceau. As head of the British Empire delegation, he had Robert Borden and Australia's Billy Hughes on side. Borden, wishing to remain on good terms with Wilson, feared that Canada might be drawn into a war between the United States and Britain, with Japan as the mother country's ally. (The Japanese wanted and got the former German concessions in China's Shantung Peninsula, a future jumping-off point for the Rape of Nanking and their invasion of Manchuria.)

French demands for ever-increasing reparations proved a real bone of contention among the Allies. So did France's understandable desire to protect her frontier on the Rhine and to emasculate Prussian military might -- and, another of Wilson's Fourteen Points, American insistence on national self-determination in central Europe and the Balkans.

The conference took a Byzantine turn when Lloyd George enquired if Serbs and Croats spoke the same language. They did, but the former used the Cyrillic alphabet, the latter the Roman. (The Allies regarded the Serb leader, Nicola Pasic, incomprehensible in every tongue, as especially wise.) Two thousand years of historical strife could not be resolved in a few months, and the Balkans would again threaten the peace of Europe in the 1990s.

While the German delegation, led by Prussian aristocrat Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzow, played recordings of Wagner on phonographs imported from Germany (the music deafened Allied eavesdroppers), the victors drew up terms that allowed the Germans no air force or tanks. Their army was reduced to 100,000; their navy to a coastguard-sized 15,000. The Rhineland was demilitarized. France, retaining bridgeheads at Cologne, Koblenz and Mainz, would control the coal mines of the Saar. Poland was granted a corridor through East Prussia to the Free City of Danzig, governed under a League mandate. The Sudetenland Germans passed to Czechoslovak rule. And reparations were assessed at a staggering 132 billion gold marks ($34-billion in 1919 U.S. dollars).

Germany, MacMillan observes, would actually pay less than half that amount, much of it in trade goods -- no more, in relative terms, than France paid to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Subsequent financial agreements, the Dawes Plan of 1924 and the creation of the Bank for International Settlements, would soften the burden. Yet clause 231, which laid the groundwork for reparations, would be stigmatized even by moderate German politicians of the interwar years as a "war-guilt" clause.

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Contrary to the "received view" expressed by Keynes in his Economic Consequences of the Peace, MacMillan asserts that Germany did much better out of Versailles than is usually supposed. In this, Paris 1919 follows the line taken by the German-American historian Gerhard Weinberg. However, MacMillan does not deny the treaty's propaganda value to Hitler, who, a mere 20 years later would plunge the world into a much more cataclysmic conflict. Then, and only then, did the Great War become the First World War.

It might have been better, MacMillan concludes, had Germany been more decisively defeated in 1918. This would have put paid to the myth that the Kaiser's army was stabbed in the back. Yet even victors by victory are undone. If, redrawing the maps of fallen empires, the peacemakers came up with imperfect solutions, they inherited difficulties not of their own making. Many of them -- in Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East -- are still with us. Only prophets can peer around corners in time. In 1919, geopolitics was problem enough.

Margaret MacMillan has a wonderful sense of place and time, as well as an ear for the telling quote. Winner of England's prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for 2001, she is now provost of Trinity College, Toronto. A glorious drama, Paris 1919,which revels in the interplay of men and ideas, is the best historical narrative I have read in many a year. Novelist Chris Scott has a work-in-progress, Orders , about Ludendorff's spring offensive of 1918.

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