Paris 1919: Excellent

              

Even if I wasn’t predisposed to an enjoyment of WWI history, I suspect I’d have enjoyed Margaret MacMillian’s (epic 500 page) account of the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles in Paris 1919. Elegant sentences and a keen sense of characterization make this history intensely readable. A decision to withhold judgment on the particular historical characters lends it credibility, in that no one person or country is blamed; rather, the combined effect of a complicated and contingent set of treaties, weak characters (either too ambitious or too reticent), illnesses, and miscommunications, resulted in a treaty that, as MacMillan argues, cannot on its own be blamed for anything (re: not for WWII), but must be recognized in historical hindsight (and by many at the time) as an abject failure in a project of promoting peace.

I particularly enjoyed the characterization of the members of the Supreme Council (aptly named, I suppose): Wilson, Clemenceau, Orlando and Lloyd George. Each received ample introduction, which allowed the later discussion of their mistakes, and subsequent political downfalls, to read as poignant. The measured attention to the contradictory enforcement of “self-determination” as dependent on political and economic expedients for those with political power, and the arrogance and self-righteousness of the policy makers, came with an appropriate connection to circumstances in the present that resonated, without badgering.

The organization of the book is excellent. Characters, countries and their different aims and outcomes, geographic determinations and overlaps, unfold according to geography, but also read as seamlessly plotted, such that a subsequent chapter relies on necessary information introduced in a former. That said, there are a few occasions where I wondered whether an editor might have missed a line where information is given twice — perhaps a later section written independently without regard for the chapter that came earlier? or perhaps a purposeful reminder to the reader of what appears to be a rather insignificant point? I’m not sure, and it probably doesn’t matter, as these infrequent repetitions take nothing away from the well crafted plot.

If you’re at all interested in imperialism, border-making, diplomacy, or Europe in the inter-war period I cannot recommend this book enough. Should you find European history to be the least engaging, you will be – without overstatement, I think – riveted at many points by this account. Perchance you dislike history books, Europeans, witty asides, and sarcastic comments about historical attire and comportment, you best look elsewhere.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

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