We Are Children of Versailles

The New York Sun, November 2007

A review of: A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.

In the wake of the First World War, leaders of the Western powers — Britain, France, Italy, and America — assembled in Paris to redraw the maps of the world. From the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, they meatballed together Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia; they invented Iraq and Jordan ex nihilo.

They ignored Indochina. They knew little about the religions, ethnic loyalties, and national aspirations of the people affected by their decisions. Had they devoted a tenth the mental energy to understanding these issues that they did to their vigorous carnal exertions, argues David A. Andelman in A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (John Wiley and Sons, 326 pages, $25.95), the world today would be a safer place.

The conference “played out against a vivid tableau peopled by a host of petty despots and thieves, not to mention charlatans, pimps, partygoers, literati, journalists, and artists of every stripe,” writes Mr. Andelman, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who is now the executive editor of Forbes. He does not skimp on the details (bless him). The young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, newly arrived in Paris, spent his nights lavishing attention on fawning young Parisian widows; his wife was not amused. The British diplomat and “bisexual aesthete” Harold Nicolson cavorted with the daughter of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, while his wife, Vita Sackville-West, sported with the daughter of the mistress of King Edward VII. Henrietta Brooks — an American divorcée who had been rogering General Pershing — hosted glittering soirées in her mother’s Parisian town house in the hope of bagging herself a second husband. Undressed French chorus girls populated the backdrop; Arthur Balfour, tucking his shirtwaist into his pants, emerged from their company and declared himself best pleased with “the most delightful and degrading evening I have ever spent.” Queen Marie of Romania wondered whether she should open her discussions with President Wilson by discussing the League of Nations or her pink chemise; Balfour advised her to begin with the League of Nations, “and finish up with the pink chemise. If you were talking to Mr. Lloyd George,” he counseled, “you could begin with the pink chemise.” The queen seems to have flashed Wilson a bit too much of the pink. Wilson complained that he was so embarrassed by her unladylike demeanor that he had “no idea where to look.”

Meanwhile, the urgent entreaties of the rather sexless Nguyen Ai Quoc — the future Ho Chi Minh — were ignored. The Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Jews of the Middle East were carelessly commingled in artificial nations and unstable protectorates. Promises made to the Arabs who had revolted against the Ottoman Turks were not kept. The new countries created in the Balkans and Central Europe were ethnically heterogeneous, militarily indefensible, and inherently unstable. So better to protect their lines of communication to India, the British helped themselves to three provinces of the Ottoman Empire, regions which had previously been governed from Istanbul. Together, these provinces formed nothing like a modern state: Voilà, Iraq, which is still nothing like a modern state. In all these parts of the world, Mr. Andelman concludes, “the failures of the peacemakers at Versailles — errors of judgment, or simply a surfeit of hubris — are only too apparent now.” Indeed they are.

Strictly speaking, Mr. Andelman is not concerned with the Treaty of Versailles, which was imposed by the peacemakers upon the Weimar Republic. The term Versailles serves — as it generally does — as a shorthand for the other treaties issuing from the Paris Peace Conference, namely, the Treaties of Saint Germain, Neuilly, Trianon, and Sèvres. Mr. Andelman considers as well the diplomatic events antecedent to the conference, such as the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and the signing of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, and subsequent events such as the 1921 Washington Naval Conference. He draws from these events the customary conclusions: The countries that emerged were not natural nation-states but contrivances to secure the Great Powers’s control over their colonial possessions and create buffer zones between themselves and their enemies. Their boundaries made no sense. They mashed together people who loathed each other and had always loathed each other. The world has been paying the price ever since.

No treaty in history has been more comprehensively impugned than Versailles; it is the treaty historians love to hate. Mr. Andelman’s assessment of the settlement as a catastrophic failure is hardly novel. The bulk of historiographical contumely has been directed toward the terms of the peace imposed upon Germany, which have been criticized both as too lenient and too harsh, but rarely, for obvious reasons, praised; after all, the peace treaty did not do what a peace treaty is supposed to do — keep the peace. But more than enough odium has been directed toward the rest of the peace settlement that one may wonder why Andelman thought it necessary to add to it. Margaret MacMillan’s recent Paris, 1919 (2001) covers much the same ground, and the subject wasn’t virgin territory when she set foot on it.

So do we need another book about this subject? Yes, in fact, we do. Mr. Andelman may not be advancing a new thesis, but he is correct to feel that the significance of the Paris Peace Conference is still insufficiently appreciated. It is a subject so important as to merit yet another book, and his is a lively, readable primer for those in need. If the West’s diplomatic misjudgments of the past decade are any indication, many people are still in need. The events of 1919 may seem distant to Western policy makers. They are certainly not distant to many people whose goodwill would now be useful to us.

I live, for example, in Turkey, where the Treaty of Sèvres — which dismembered the Ottoman Empire — might well have been signed yesterday for all it looms large in popular consciousness and drives Turkish foreign policy. If you are trying to understand the recent crisis in Turkish-American relations, start with this: A remarkable number of Turks, even very sophisticated ones, believe sincerely that the West’s primary policy goal is to dismember their nation and share the spoils — and they will be damned if they will let us get away with it again. This is really how they think, and Versailles is why they think this. This is why so many Turks are prepared to believe that America is not only failing to curb the PKK, but arming it. Any American diplomat who fails to appreciate this will not make much headway around here.

If historians will find nothing to surprise them in A Shattered Peace, they will nonetheless find the book entirely enjoyable, for Mr. Andelman has added a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, enlivening the period’s dense and rebarbative diplomatic history with salacious stories of the peacemakers’ sexual indiscretions and perversions. I approve. If that is the only way to make people pick up a book about the Paris Peace Conference and read it carefully, well, you do what you have to do — and this ought to do the trick. Marvelous photographs of the delegates, looking louche and hungover, add to the book’s charm.

As for Mr. Andelman’s conclusions, they are, ultimately, somewhat overstated: The Peace Conference was indeed an extraordinarily important event, but it is not the unsung explanation for everything that has ever subsequently happened, including the rise of Al Qaeda. One suspects the author reckoned the only way he could sell another book about Versailles was by pitching it as the most important historical event, and in the process of selling this idea to a publisher, accidentally sold it to himself. In fact, the monumental event was the First World War, which really is the explanation for everything that happened subsequently.

The Bolsheviks probably could not have been co-opted and tamed, as Mr. Andelman hints, by an invitation to the conference; in suggesting so he is neglecting the overwhelming evidence that by 1919 the Soviet Union was already evil to the core. It is certainly not clear that the creation of ethnically homogeneous microstates in the Middle East and the Balkans would have led to a more stable and sustainable outcome; the creation of microstates might well have led instead to immediate savage bloodletting, rather than a temporary interregnum followed by savage bloodletting.

We will never know, of course. These counterfactual questions can be debated forever, but can never be resolved. We can know, however, how these questions came to be raised, and Mr. Andelman’s new account covers this ground entertainingly and well.

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