Discussing peace - changing the world

Posted by Helen Wednesday, November 08, 2006

With Remembrance Day approaching fast, Tory Historian has at last managed to start reading Margaret Macmillan’s multiple award winning “Peacemakers”, an account of the negotiations, intrigues and agreements that resulted in the Versailles Treaty as well as the various other satellite treaties at the end of World War I.

The twentieth century is a somewhat odd one. Various historians, conservative and others, have called it “the short century” as its reality did not begin till 1914. One must recall that, unlike the twenty-first century, which was greeted with a great deal of gloom and depression, the twentieth was seen almost everywhere (Russia was probably a notable exception) as one that heralded in a new and better, more peaceful, more advanced future.
Those were days when the word “modern” meant something and the something was, by and large, positive. A century later it is a word that is used with deep gloom by most people except politicians who produce it in order to impose something deeply unpopular and, usually, rather oppressive on the population.

The Great War is generally seen as the beginning of the many horrors that the succeeding twentieth century consisted of. And all for what? After tens of millions of deaths, hundreds of millions wounded, tortured, imprisoned, deprived of their homes and property; after whole societies and cultures destroyed, at the end of the century much of what had seemed to have been wrapped up in the first twenty years reappeared in the news.
Once again the media resounds to names like Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kabul and Heart, Baghdad and Basra. Almost a hundred years after the signing of the Versailles Treaty, whose terms are often described as inevitably leading to World War II, we are still grappling with the problems either created or set loose by those negotiations in Paris so ably and wittily described by Dr Macmillan.

Let us, however, look at the beginning of it all, the great hopes of a new world that was going to be created by the great and wise in Paris out of the horrors of the war that had recently ended.

For four years the most advanced nations in the world had poured out their men, their wealth, the fruits of their industry, science and technology, on a war that may have started by accident but was impossible to stop because the two sides were too evenly balanced. It was only in the summer of 1918, as Germany’s allies faltered and as the American troops poured in, that the Allies finally gained the upper hand. The war ended on 11 November. Everywhere people hoped wearily that whatever happened next would not be as bad as what had just finished.
Little did they know and, perhaps, just as well. It is always good to have a little period of hope, though it was already disappearing in some parts of Europe. As it happens, yesterday was the anniversary of the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, a coup which destroyed any hopes of Russia developing along some kind of democratic path; a coup that created the most monstrous of history’s many monstrous systems; a coup that probably completed the destruction of European power.

Margaret Macmillan continues:
Four years of war shook forever the supreme self-confidence that had carried Europe to world dominance. After the western front Europeans could no longer talk of a civilizing mission to the world. The war toppled governments, humbled the mighty and upturned whole societies. In Russia the revolutions of 1917 replaced tsarism, with what no one yet knew. At the end of the war Austria-Hungary vanished, leaving a great hole at the centre of Europe. The Ottoman Empire, with its vast holdings in the Middle East and its bit of Europe was almost done. Imperial Germany was now a republic. Old nations – Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia – came out of history to live again and new nations – Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – struggled to be born.
All this required a great deal of management, which was impossible. The conflicting claims, the desire to go forward with some kind of liberal structures, the need not to destroy the defeated countries (overlooked at some cost to themselves eventually) by some of the victors, the hope for peace that would be guaranteed by international bodies and, above all, the reality on the ground of a messy, disintegrating political world, produced peace treaties that were flawed at best and botched at worst.

There will be more postings about the book and its subject. Responses and discussions will, we hope, be forthcoming.


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