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Interestings History The Uses and Abuses of History

The Uses and Abuses of History

“History is useful when it is used properly: to understand why we and those we must deal with think and react in certain ways. It can offer examples to inform our decisions and guesses about the consequences of our actions. But we should be wary of looking to history for dogmatic lessons. We should distrust those who abuse history when they call on it to justify unreasonable claims to land, for example, or restitution”.


Margaret MacMillan illustrates how dangerous history can be in the hands of nationalistic or religious or ethnic leaders who use it to foster a sense of grievance and a desire for revenge. (Book Review, Washington Post)

On November 11, 1918, combat operations in the “Great War” or the “War to End all Wars” came to an end and, as Erich Maria-Remarque points out in his famous book, All Quiet on the Western Front, “the day was still and silent.” Europe had just endured four years of brutal fighting that had brought about the death of millions of people and destroyed the old balance of power in Europe. The brutal nature of the “Great War” had totally altered the human perspective on war and, as all the powers of Europe came together to make peace, people hoped that a peace could be made that would prevent such a war from ever happening again. What actually resulted from the Paris Peace Conference was a peace that placed total blame for the war on one nation, Germany, and created a great deal of resentment and economic hardship. It was this treaty, many believe, that led directly to World War II, in which Adolf Hitler was able to conquer a great deal of territory and convince the German people that they were the “Master Race.”

MacMillan quotes from personal diaries, journals, official government correspondence, official minutes from meetings, hand-written notes that have survived the years, newspaper clippings, and numerous other books written on the subject of her research, using these sources to weave a very intricate story of the Paris Peace Conference and all its many happenings. MacMillan also provides some maps at the beginning of the book to give the reader a picture of the great amount of changes that occurred through out the world, as a result of the peace conference in 1919.

The book is divided into eight sections, Getting Ready for Peace, A New World Order, The Balkans Again, The German Issue, Between East and West, A Troubled Spring, Setting the Middle East Alight, and Finishing Up. This division allows readers to compartmentalize the peace conference that ended World War I, in such a way that they are able to better understand what was going on and how what was happening would come to affect the world when it was all over. In these eight sections, MacMillan breaks down the very dynamic of the conference and explains, in detail, how everything that was happening mingled together to produce the uncomfortable interim between the world wars.
Through out the book MacMillan addresses how Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points affected the peace conference. The two most controversial of the Fourteen Points turned out to be five and fourteen, the points that referred to Self-Determination and the League of Nations. Countless delegations from peoples around the world came to the conference in search of new nations or territorial restitutions. Some of the biggest issues arose with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian Empires. Poland was reborn out of pieces of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland were established from territories lost on Russia’s western frontier. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided up between new and separate Hungarian and Austrian States, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and a new South-Slav State, known as Yugoslavia. The Ottoman Empire was also partitioned but in a different way. Many of the peoples from the Ottoman Empire sought independence but few, in the end actually got it. The Turks, because of a forceful leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, were the only people to not be placed under a foreign mandate. The peoples of Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq were all placed under European rule. The Chinese were also hurt by the Big Four’s decision to place their province of Shandong, a holy place to the Chinese, under a Japanese Mandate.
The biggest issue with the League of Nations was that many people thought that it required a surrender of some sovereignty; this was especially a problem later in the United States when Wilson was trying to get the United States Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. It was pointed out by Wilson that this not the case. The League was merely supposed to serve as a cooperative that would further the economic success of member nations and prevent the devastation of the “Great War” from ever happening again. The other major issue in relation to the League was whether or not Germany would be allowed to join. The French, who were the most resistant, wanted Germany to suffer the maximum punishment for the damages done to their nation by the German Army. Allowing Germany to join the League, to them, was contrary to the outcome that they wanted to achieve at the peace conference. The British and the Americans were more conciliatory. They wanted to allow Germany to join the League so that it could grow strong enough to, at the least, serve as a blockade against the expansion of Bolshevism that had sprung up from the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Another thing that people will find interesting when reading this book is that the armistice that suspended fighting between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the other allies of both sides, did not end all of the fighting. Once the peace conference was under way, and even a little bit before it started peoples were arming themselves and marching into other lands to secure the borders of the nations that they wished to establish. The Poles moved armies into parts of Germany, Russia, and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Czecho-Slovaks moved troops into part of Hungary. The Romanians moved troops into parts of Hungary. The Greeks invaded Smyrna on the Turkish coast, and moved troops into Eastern Thrace. The Italians occupied some Turkish territory and territory along the Adriatic Coast. The Bulgarians moved troops into Serbia, and the Serbians moved troops into areas such as Bosnia and Croatia when they were arguing for a united South Slav State. Further, the Bolsheviks retook nations in the Caucus Mountains that had declared independence, and the British and French moved troops into the Middle East to secure their mandates. This was far from an end to violence. If the casualties from these conflicts, and there were many, are not counted among the total casualties of World War I, they should be because they were directly related to the event.

The main argument that Macmillan makes in Paris 1919 comes at the very end of the book. She argues that the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was not a cause of World War II. She concedes that the peacemakers did make mistakes, such as their treatment of the non-European world that caused resentment that the West is dealing with to this day. She points to the partitioning of Germany’s African colonies, the arbitrary division of the Middle East that had absolutely nothing to do with the self-determination of peoples, and the decisions made in Asia. However, she does not believe that these events and the decisions actions taken against Germany were the cause of World War II. She argues that actions taken and decisions made or not made in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 are what served as causes of World War II.
France, Britain, and the United States, the “major” powers at the peace conference, could have taken actions to help Germany draw closer to them rather than push them into the hands of Hitler. Such actions may have slowly eliminated the great resentment that Germans felt towards the Allied Powers after the peace was made, and made them less willing to listen to Hitler, no matter how charismatic he may have been. However, they did not do this, and Adolf Hitler was able to use the arbitrary nature of the Treaty of Versailles to his advantage. He used it to create a picture of the world in Germany that convinced the German people of the righteousness of his cause. The Treaty of Versailles may not have been the main cause of World War II, but it most certainly should be placed on the list of the significant causes of the war.

Margaret MacMillan

(Book Review, Toronto Globe and Mail)

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