Blessed are the Peacemakers? Review – Peacemakers (2001) by Margaret MacMillan

In many ways the Paris Peace Conference which followed the First World War represented a moment unlike any other in history. For less than a year, the leaders of victorious nations – many of which were also crippled by the conflict – came together to determine the fate of the defeated. These statesmen also acted, for a short but intense period, as what was in effect a world government, a situation entirely without precedent (as Margaret MacMillan notes in her compelling Introduction). But more than that, the Peace Conference was also the world’s ‘court of appeal and parliament, the focus of its fears and hopes’. It represented not just the prospect of a settlement of the most cataclysmic conflict the globe had ever seen; it represented the hope of a better world. Whether the peace treaties which were issued from this conference were vicious or short sighted (questions I have attempted to answer elsewhere) is superficially enough to convict or commend the peacemakers; but when trying really to understand them – their motivations and dreams and desires – and what made them act as they did, an altogether more holistic frame of reference is required.

Her ability to include personal stories and anecdotes alongside analysis of technical details and consequential decisions is MacMillan’s most important strength. It is this revelatory analysis of personality as well as policy which makes her book so vital; and it is this analysis which also makes the ensuing work so enjoyable to read.

This enjoyment is only increased by the extent to which this book does not shrink from the difficult questions, be they political, economic or moral. In this narrative MacMillan gives full rein to the controversy which lies at the heart of this greatly contentious period, which is itself a microcosm of history’s enduring power to generate and contain great debate, argument and genuine emotion. MacMillan does not reach for the easy solutions and the simple answers; instead she seeks to chronicle this tumultuous time with all the skill at her disposal. The tumult demands it; and that department the reader is not left disappointed.

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To say that the subject of reparations is a controversial one risks committing an act of gross understatement. As I have written before, matters financial played a tremendous role not just in the negotiations themselves, but in the way many nations – foremost among them Germany – saw the world in the aftermath of the Peace Conference. Such events were tremendously influential; they even – and perhaps especially – exerted a direct effect on how nations were governed in the post-war period.

But the conception of reparations as a cruel and short-sighted and grasping initiative – which was kept alive for many years by populist conceptions of macroeconomics (of which more later) and the persistent notion that Britain, France and America were acting in a greedy ‘imperial’ fashion in 1919 – remains persistent. In other words, events such as Lloyd George’s composition of his Fontainebleau memorandum, in which he urged moderation when dealing with a potentially restive Germany, count for little when they come up against a well-established doctrinal worldview.

(That worldview, partial though it may be, is not hindered or contradicted by some popular slogans from the time, including the electoral injunction – one common in the victorious powers – to ‘make Germany pay’; in answer to that it must be remembered that even those who are victorious in war must fight elections. Eric Campbell-Geddes, a British minister, uttered the statement most obviously associated with what some perceive to be the Allied and Associated Powers’ immorality. He promised to ‘squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak’.)

The scholarly consensus today, however, appears to suggest that the reparations themselves were not the financial millstone they are popularly suggested to be; indeed, many historians writing in the 21st century – Sally Marks, Adam Tooze and Niall Ferguson among them – seem to agree that the reparations demanded of Germany and the other Central Powers were in fact repayable. The demands themselves, while undoubtedly large, were lessened in intensity by loans to Germany from Allied powers. And at any rate, the German state did stand to gain from the promise of compulsory disarmament, another provision of the Treaty of Versailles; even though the German war economy was – by some measures, at least – more efficient than those of the Allied and Associated Powers, the state at peace could not keep up its ruinous martial budget. Furthermore, the new republic was compelled to renounce (and later scuttled) the grandiose and expensive navy which had set much of mood music that helped to create antagonism between Britain and Imperial Germany before the war. But compared to what should be commonplace observations, the myth of crippling reparations is incredibly persistent.

In his book The Origins of the Second World War, A. J. P. Taylor went further than Marks, Tooze and others and actively accused interwar German governments of purposely restraining the economic recovery of their nation, ‘well knowing that, if they once got things straight, the bill for reparations would follow’. In a bid to postpone this unwelcome event, Taylor suggested, the Germans ‘deliberately kept their economic affairs in confusion’. (This observation certainly resembles other aspects of German policy in the same era. By way of example, it must be noted that one of the key planks of foreign policy for the crafty German statesman Gustav Stresemann was doing just enough to conciliate and coddle the western allies while leaving Germany’s hated new borders in the east in a state of flux; in this way he was able to engender the creation of a policy of fulfilment while secretly desiring the reconquest of much of what was newly-awarded Polish territory. And it worked, too – he even won a Nobel Peace Prize.)

In his book Taylor also provided an interesting discussion of how the German people both became convinced and convinced others that the payment of reparations – or the prospect of their implementation – was crippling the German economy and keeping its population poor and disadvantaged. He wrote:

The common sense of mankind says that a man is poorer for paying out money; and what is true for an individual appears true for a nation. Germany was paying reparations; and was therefore the poorer for it. By an easy transition reparations became the sole cause of German poverty. The businessman in difficulties; the underpaid schoolteacher; the unemployed worker all blamed their troubles on reparations. The cry of a hungry child was a cry against reparations. The old man stumbled into the grave because of reparations. The great inflation of 1923 was attributed to reparations; so was the great depression of 1929.

In the face of such determined (and pre-determined) opposition, it is not difficult to see how reparations have been popularly perceived by later generations to have constituted one of history’s greatest crimes. It is not difficult, too, to understand the way in which this telling of events casts the peacemakers as the prime movers of a rapacious and cruel peace which set out to keep Germany down. This was the rhetoric of the German far-Right, most notably personified in the politics Hitler came to champion – but it was also a familiar rallying cry for those across the German political spectrum who found political expedience in opposing the Versailles ‘Ditkat’. Reparations are held to be responsible not only for the iniquitous end to the First World War but also for much of what led to Germany’s eventual second attempt at European domination.

This characterisation of the peace as a thoroughly disingenuous and predatory affair is both unfair and largely invalidated in the light of history. But there can be no surprise at the fact that, after nearly a century of this kind of talk, the peacemakers are still somewhat tarnished by the issue of reparations, even if this animus exists only in the form of part-forgotten anger half-hidden amid the mists of folk memory.

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The focal point of any history of this period must be Germany, and it is only right and proper that MacMillan devotes as many pages as she does to the portion of the Peace Conference which is seen, in the full glare of hindsight, to have been the most vital to the makeup of the post-war world. There are also, however, practically innumerable other stories to be told, and MacMillan brings many of them to light with an immediacy and wit which makes even the most provincial quarrel seem worth the entire world. Such is the drama of the conference’s process of oratory and cross-examination that every debate seems worthy of minute attention. That much of the decisions were made behind closed doors by the Council of Four – Woodrow Wilson of the United States, George Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Great Britain and Vittorio Orlando of Italy – does not diminish the drama. When China, then a great but feeble nation recovering from many years of being pushed around by other powers, attempts to stop Japan wresting strategic concessions from its puny grip, the story could almost be mistaken for a profoundly emotive one.

And there is more than a hint of bathos in the proceedings. Ho Chi Minh, later to become the dictatorial leader of a communist Vietnam, was working as a waiter in Paris in 1919 and demanded (and was refused) a right to speak about the rights of his nation; Faisal, representative of the Arabs, according to one account quoted the Qur’an at length instead of giving a speech to the conference while T. E. Lawrence, supposedly his translator, improvised at will; the Chinese delegation threw a banquet in order to win the Westerners over but did not let on which issue it was intended to win their favour about; Clemenceau became bemused by his inability to understand a more than slightly racist joke Wilson was fond of telling. There are almost the makings of comedy here. Reality often intercedes to puncture the embryonic (and ironic) humour, but its occasional appearance greatly enlivens this long book, as well as humanising and giving colour and depth to the diplomatic drama’s participants.

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On these and in other matters the book is, on the whole, well-written and even enthralling; and this judgement is not necessarily the expected one when considering a work written almost entirely about a peace conference, with its meetings – vast numbers of them – memoranda, informal discussions, formal events, dances and petty, almost domestic dramas. To bring to life a scene with such a tremendous potential for dullness takes the skill of a truly talented writer. MacMillan is that writer, and some of her pen portraits are fascinating exercises in the biography of brevity. This, written about Ion Bratianu, Romania’s Prime Minister, is delightfully cutting:

Rich, powerful, polished to the point of absurdity, he had a profound sense of his own importance. He had been educated in those forcing houses of intellectuals, the Hautes Ecoles in Paris, and never let anyone forget it. He loved to be discovered lying on the sofa with a book of French verse in a languid hand.

Many other individuals and their stories, motivations, dreams and desires make up the narrative; but it is a testament to MacMillan’s skill that they do not crowd it. The personages do not obfuscate the narrative, and nor do they serve to increase the opacity of processes by which the eventual settlement is reached. MacMillan knows her cast of characters well, and though it is a formidable one, the reader is left with what seems to be genuine insight into each of them.

There is, sadly, a little repetition in the narrative form MacMillan employs to contain her person-shaped digressions; this does to some degree lessen the originality of some passages of description, which could be seen to mar the façade of a thoroughly elegant work. With a dramatis personae as diverse and numerous as this, however, such an eventuality ought to take no reader by surprise; and it is more than compensated for by the vibrancy of some of the portrayals, which greatly add to what was already, in the words of Tony Blair, a ‘fascinating piece of history’. Similarly, while some sources appear to be over-utilised – the diaries of the ubiquitous Harold Nicholson fit the bill here – other figures of great interest – such as the deeply emotionally fragile French President, Poincaré, and Winston Churchill, who is stranded at the periphery both of the conference and the narrative – are rarely mentioned. These initially seem like serious omissions, but as the book progresses it is apparent that it is sufficiently stuffed full of insight to satisfy any but the most prescriptive of readers. And at any rate, as the deteriorative effect of the repetitious pen-portrait is greatly more in evidence in MacMillan’s more recent work on 20th century international relations: The War that Ended Peace. In Peacemakers, MacMillan cannot be accused of such things with any substance in this case.

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Particular personalities of interest come naturally to the fore during the course of the book. Among them is Arthur Balfour, the principle author of the famous – and of course thoroughly consequential – Declaration which bears his name.

Balfour is presented as an otherworldly figure. His life having been a thoroughly charmed affair – Lord Salisbury, his uncle, served as Prime Minister before it was his turn to assume that particular mantle of office – it is slightly surprising to witness his being involved with something as worldly as the Peace Conference; for it was, as MacMillan presents, at least in part a focal point for venality, opportunism and naked self interest – all of it very distant from the rarefied, intellectual and aristocratic air Balfour and his social equals affected to enjoy. (One humorous incident occurred when the elderly Balfour – then in his seventies – was taken to a Paris nightclub by Elsa Maxwell, a would-be socialite on the make, for the first time in his life; his response – as courteous as ever – was to thank her for ‘the most delightful and degrading evening I have ever spent’.)

Another personage invested with a great deal of descriptive lustre is that of Jan Smuts, who attended the Peace Conference as a representative of South Africa. In MacMillan’s telling he was ever-precise, ever-prepared and ever-eloquent. This combination – particularly when present within a process which accumulated an ever-increasing amount of obscure and provincial minutiae – is a very attractive one, and the reader naturally comes to sympathise with Smuts’ desire for a strong League of Nations. There are also positive traits to be discerned in his dutiful service; from former Boer commander to loyal servant of the British Crown – the transformation is a superficially pleasing one. What is less appealing, however, is the historical fact of Smuts’ loyalty to South Africa, a society which was at this stage already far gone down the road to apartheid; indeed, he repeatedly endorsed segregation on the basis of race, an entirely unconscionable act to today’s reader.

It appears that the final lesson, then, which can be gained from MacMillan’s handling of personality – what the Victorians called ‘character’ – is both simple and valuable. People – be they personages, ‘personalities’ or simply ordinary individuals – are all vulnerable to those forces that transcend and shape the personal; and the peace conferences had no Napoleon, no Trotsky – no individual seemingly strong enough to bend the course of history itself.

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Even the mighty must fall; and on this theme there is genuine pathos in MacMillan’s concluding chapter, in which she speeds through the characters of her drama and relates their fates at an almost breathless pace. Woodrow Wilson, who faced tough opposition from Henry Cabot Lodge and other Congressional Republicans, failed to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the Senate; the League of Nations was to come into existence sans America, its ‘keystone’.  He died soon after, shattered by the efforts to which he had gone in his failed campaign to win the United States over to his grand international vision. On the personal level, Sir Henry Wilson, a gruff old soldier who nonetheless played an important role in settling many of the military terms contained within the various treaties, was gunned down by the IRA in 1922. And less than twenty years after the conclusion of the Paris Peace Conference there was to be another war, an altogether more terrible war, which would rip Europe and the world asunder for a second time.

It is a bitter conclusion, and one which is largely unworthy of the immense pageantry and irony and pathos of the peace conference and the peacemakers. Such, some would argue, is the nature of history; it is by definition without a satisfying conclusion. What readers can draw some satisfaction from, however, is a well-constructed narrative replete with pertinent analysis, and that, at least, is something Margaret MacMillan’s book accomplishes very handsomely indeed.

This particular subject may appear at first to echo and embody elements of Edward Gibbon’s pessimistic summation of the nature of history – that it is ‘little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’; but there is something to be gained from the fact that this diplomatic event, which could have sunk into the obscurity one associates with difficult and inaccessible history, remains contentious. Controversy is not the best guide as to what is worthy of scholarly attention, it is true, but it ought to serve as an aid in discerning the parts of history which still exert a hold on us today. That they continue to shape the world we live in – even if that influence is itself negative – is a profoundly heartening thought; it means that the past is still alive.

And more than that, the past is well served in that it has historians like MacMillan to guide readers through its complexities and controversies. She surveys the scene in a pragmatic, perceptive way, and even then – when taking into account their personal failures, their self interest, and the ultimate inability of the Peace Conference to achieve its loft aims – she surveys the peacemakers themselves and cuts them some greatly deserved slack. At least in her telling they are safe from the ‘slings and arrow of outrageous fortune’. And with the current state of historical debate over the peace treaties as it is, that seems to be the very best anyone can reasonably expect. There is, in Shakespeare’s phrase, a true sea of troubles associated with the Peace Conference. Its waters contain much vituperation and the potential for tremendous upheavals; and fair or not, warranted or not, it is not going away any time soon.

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