Book: Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference

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Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War

Author: Margaret MacMillan
Publisher: John Murray

After the war to end all wars, men and women from all over the world converged on Paris for the Peace Conference. At its heart were the three great powers—Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau—but thousands of others came too, each with a different agenda. Kings, prime ministers and foreign ministers with their crowds of advisers rubbed shoulders with journalists and lobbyists for a hundred causes, from Armenian independence to women’s rights. Everyone had business that year—T.E. Lawrence, Queen Marie of Romania, Maynard Keynes, Ho Chi Minh. There had never been anything like it before, and there never has been since.

For six extraordinary months the city was effectively the centre of world government as the peacemakers wound up bankrupt empires and created new countries. This book brings to life the personalities, ideals and prejudices of the men who shaped the settlement. They pushed Russia to the sidelines, alienated China and dismissed the Arabs, struggled with the problems of Kosovo, or the Kurds, and of a homeland for the Jews. The peacemakers, it has been said, failed dismally, and above all failed to prevent another war. Margaret MacMillan argues that they have been made scapegoats for the mistakes of those who came later. They tried to be evenhanded, but their goals could never in fact be achieved by diplomacy.

Also published under the title Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.

University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan failed at first to find a Canadian publisher for her account of the pivotal peace conference that followed the First World War and, some have said, laid the groundwork for the second, but when Paris 1919 won the Samuel Johnson Prize in the U.K., it returned home a bestseller and remained so for years. MacMillan, great-granddaughter of one of the conference’s principals, David Lloyd George, has written a definitive history—authoritative, colourful, and engrossing—of the peace that failed.


In the very first words of her prize-winning book, Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan says, “In 1919 Paris was the capital of the world.” In the aftermath of the First World War, the great and good of all nations were there to reshape the world. New nations sprang into existence during lunches in expensive Parisian hotels; borders that had lasted centuries were altered with the stroke of a pen; empires that had outlived their sell-by date were unceremoniously dismantled. Presiding over this wholesale remaking of the globe were Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau.

Margaret Macmillan’s pen portraits of the Big Three, and of many of the other extraordinary delegates to the Peace Conference—from Lawrence of Arabia to the Polish pianist and politician Ignace Paderewski—are superb. Her own writing is engagingly witty and she has a knack for finding apposite and funny quotes to enhance it. This is one of the very few books on diplomacy and international relations that can make a reader laugh out loud. The liveliness and vigour of her writing rests on the solid foundation of her wide-ranging knowledge. The delegates presumed not only to solve the problems of war-ravaged Europe but were happy to turn their attentions to Africa, the Middle East and China. Margaret Macmillan seems equally comfortable discussing the intricacies of Balkan boundaries, the creation of new states like Czechoslovakia, war between Greece and Turkey, Zionist settlement in Palestine, Japanese ambitions in the Pacific and a host of other subjects. Above all she works hard to be fair to the participants in the conference.

We know that an even more terrible war was only 20 years in the future. They didn’t and they were all working sincerely to create a world in which war would be impossible. Macmillan is rightly dismissive of the notion that the peace devised at Paris was so flawed that another war was inevitable. Her book not only does justice to the Paris Peace Conference but it’s also massively readable. That’s quite an achievement. —Nick Rennison

Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 is a colourful, epic history of the momentous days after World War I that saw U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and the other Allied leaders reshape the world. Wilson arrived in France to referee the Paris Peace Conference only a month after the war’s end, sailing into a French port past an avenue of British, U.S., and French battleships. The world, horrified by the millions of war deaths, was desperate for peace and embraced Wilson’s call for a League of Nations and self-determination for all peoples. Enthusiastic European crowds greeted the U.S. president and posters bearing his face lined the streets.

It was a conference unlike any other in history: attendees redrew borders, rewrote international relations, and tried—unsuccessfully—to contain German militarism. It unfolded in the midst of massive social upheaval as Europeans awoke to widespread hunger and the inequalities of their age. In the pressure cooker of Paris, this bubbling stew of social and political forces boiled over, and many of Wilson’s dreams were dashed. The world lives with the legacy of these few months. Not only did the conference produce a new map of Europe and the Middle East, it led to the infamous Versailles Treaty, often blamed for provoking World War II. MacMillan, a University of Toronto history professor, argues that the Allied leaders did their best, and to blame World War II on them is to absolve Hitler and his appeasers. MacMillan could perhaps be accused of bias: her great-grandfather was British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, one of the main political players in 1919. However, her book has been acclaimed by historians and has won Britain’s richest nonfiction award. Complete with backroom intrigue, personal drama, and vivid characters, Paris 1919 is a vital contribution to our understanding of the last century and the current one. —Alex Roslin

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