Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Book Reviews: The Guns of August and Paris 1919

These two books deserve to be reviewed together, as they bookend the beginning and end of World War I nicely. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman recounts the opening days of the war, while Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan covers the rather imperfect Versailles Peace Treaty that concluded but by no means ended the war.

World War I, referred to at the time as The Great War or The War to End All Wars, marks a sharp discontinuity in Western Civilization, and thus deserves our attention. Aside from being the first major European conflict using Industrial Age weaponry, WWI also marked a turning away from the Western beliefs in optimism and progress. That optimism was quickly dashed in the opening days of the conflict. Tuchman makes it quite clear that both sides expected the war to last, at most, six weeks, not the four years of combat that actually took place. Both sides had plans in place to ensure quick victory. Neither side counted on the toll of sheer violence that was to ensue from massive use of artillery and machine guns, or much later, poison gas and aeroplanes.

One thing Tuchman conveys very well is something we tend to forget today, with historical pictures of trenches and stalemate: the first six weeks of the war were, in fact, classic battles of maneuver, of the sort armies still prefer to fight today. These maneuvers very nearly led to victory for Germany on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. It wasn't until both sides had exhausted and slaughtered each other enough that stalemate became possible; and it would not be until the United States entered the fight in 1917 with its own large army that maneuver warfare again became possible. Suffering under German military superiority, totalitiarianism, a pre-industrial economy, and political incompetence at home, Czarist Russia collapsed in Marxist revolution.

In spite of this brutality, Tuchman's book is still mostly bloodless, especially when compared with many war histories to date. She also dwells almost entirely on the personalities, rivalries, and individual actions of the generals and the political leaders, only occasionally giving insight into the individual combat soldiers en masse, though she does detail more specifically the atrocities and brutal reprisals the German army inflicted on the people of Belgium and France for daring to fight back after being conquered. In addition to the initial violation of Belgium's neutrality (a trick Nazi Germany was to repeat in 1940), atrocities like these led to Great Britain joining and staying in the war--if only to put an end to such wanton violence. Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II was strictly authoritarian with a bully's mentality that Hitler was to only refine when he came to power. The war simply gave the world a taste of the true totalitarianism that lay ahead.

Just as the hopes at the outset of the war were met with bitter disappointment--and four years of deadly struggle--so too were the hopes of the peacemakers at Versailles dashed by the harsh realities brought about by that struggle. Paris 1919 provides, again, an engaging narrative of the great leaders and their assistants, with the great masses of the world, whose fates they were deciding, making appearances as spectators as Paris became, for six months "the capital of the world."

The great hope of the Versailles conference came in the form of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who set as the price for America's entry on the world stage "to make the world safe for democracy." Since America's army had been so decisive, he was to push hard for his Fourteen Points and League of Nations, which (as a precursor to the United Nations) was supposed to prevent the outbreak of future wars. This was to prove problematic, as Britain, France, and Italy were all constitutional monarchies or aristocracies with little interest in American-style representative democracy. Paris 1919 also makes it clear why peace-making is so messy and often disappointing to the publics being represented. France's President Georges Clemenceau wanted the harshest reparations possible, given that his nation had had had its territory invaded and demolished by Germany. Great Britan's prime minister David Lloyd George, fearing that a weakened Germany would lead to a communist takeover as happened in Russia, sought lesser reparations, but also had to appease a voting public back home that also wanted Germany punished.

One of the biggest problems created by Wilson's call for "self-determination" was his insistence upon creating nations based on national groups that, so far as many historians could tell, had never had their own independence. Most of the new European nations and borders born at Versailles were to be undone or drastically changed after World War II. Many peoples gathered in Paris to petition the Great Powers for their own nationhood, including many who had been promised the independent nations in the same area, like the Jews and Arabs in the former Turkish territory of Palestine. Some new incompatible nations like Yugoslavia were created from whole cloth, while other territories merely changed landlords, from the Turks to the British or French. Paris 1919 is worth reading today, if only to give a little historical perspective on the current problems in the Muslim world.

Macmillan addresses the various issues at Versailles by region, devoting individual chapters to the Balkans, creating new nations, dividing up old nations (especially Turkey and the Austro-Hungarian Empire), settling the reparations issue with Germany, establishing the League of Nations, and establishing standards for racial equality for new Asian powers like Japan. The author also makes it clear that all of these activities were overlapping, and thus affected each other at different times for different reasons.

Perhaps the most important political facts at the conference were the absence of Germany's representatives and Russia's. Britain and France had deliberately left the Germans out of the negotiations, leaving the German people to do naught but hope that Wilson would force the Allies to be merciful. For the most part, they were not, and Hitler would be able to use the Treaty as a convenient cause of Germany's problems in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the Allies were in an awkward position with regard to Russia, which Britan and the United States were in the process of invading or aiding the Mensheviks (liberals) to keep the Bolshevik communists from taking over. The Allies did not yet recognize the communist government of Soviet Russia as a legitimate government. As such, when Lenin and his people did become the recognized government, they saw Versailles as little more than an agreement among "capitalists." (By the way, for a more detailed examination of the struggle between forms of government, I highly recommend Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles, which makes the case that the war which began in 1914 did not really end until 1990.)

One thing Tuchman and Macmillan manage to do splendidly is put to rest any notions of great movements or Marxist "historical forces" in human events. The beginning and ending of World War I make quite clear that individual personalities, foibles, manners, words, and decisions matter in the shaping of historical events. In the end, it is people who matter, and we would be well advised to remember those lessons the next time we face the prospect of another war...or peace.

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