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Interview with Margaret MacMillan

TTBW 1213 'Margaret MacMillan'
PBS feed date 5/6/2004

Funding for this program is provided by...

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

(opening animation)

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. At the close of World War I-allegedly the íwar to end all warsí-the victors met in Paris to forge what they hoped would be a lasting peace. From the ruins of four bankrupt empires they redrew the boundaries of the modern world. They created new boundaries and entirely new nations throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East, including a British protectorate called Palestine and a patchwork country called Iraq. Many of todayís most violent conflicts can be traced back to decisions made during those fateful six months in Paris. What went wrong? What went right? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Margaret MacMillan, history professor at the University of Toronto and author of íParis 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.í The topic before the House: From Versailles to Iraq. This week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Okay, Margaret MacMillan, welcome to Think Tank.

MACMILLAN: Thank you.

WATTENBERG: World War I ended eighty-five years ago, and yet it still influences. I think it was one of the reviews said it: reading your book, which is a remarkable book, is like reading the daily paper. So I wonder if you could set the stage for us. I mean youíve got a whole sentence or two to talk about the war and then letís go on into this remarkable conference.

MACMILLAN: Well it was the last war that Europe had seen and it killed a great many young men - men of military age - and it left a tremendous mess behind it. I mean political, social, and economic...

WATTENBERG: Well, whatís the numerical total of people killed. You have something?

MACMILLAN: Twenty million.

WATTENBERG: Twenty million.

MACMILLAN: Mainly men, because this was before civilians started getting killed in large numbers.

WATTENBERG: Who won, who lost in World War I? Just letís get that out of the way so we know what weíre doing

MACMILLAN: Well the winning side was almost the same as the second World War, so it was the United States, France, Britain, and Russia. But Italy was on the winning side in the first World War and so was Japan...

WATTENBERG: Japan was on our side?

MACMILLAN: Yep. Japan was on the allied side.

WATTENBERG: And the axis was...

MACMILLAN: Germany, Austria/Hungary, which was a big empire in those days; Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey.

WATTENBERG: Who calls this peace conference - the book is called - I have it down here, Paris 1919, but itís about what is called the Versailles Treaty. The actual negotiations were held in Paris?

MACMILLAN: Yes, they were held in Paris in various rooms in the French Foreign Ministry for example, at the.... and around Paris and the treaty with Germany was signed at Versailles and then other treaties were signed in other suburbs of Paris.

WATTENBERG: The final grand treaty done in Versailles. Is that why itís called the Versailles Treaty?

MACMILLAN: Yes. Well, the most difficult treaty to do of all was the one with Germany, because it was the major of the defeated nations, and it was a template for the other treaties, and so they signed that one at Versailles.

WATTENBERG: I see. All right. Who were the big players?

MACMILLAN: Well, it was sort of an odd conference because what it was meant to be was a preliminary one where the allies would get together and the big players among the allies were Britain, with David Lloyd George as Prime Minister...

WATTENBERG: Now David Lloyd George was your great-grandfather?

MACMILLAN: Yes, he was my great-grandfather.

WATTENBERG: Right. But thatís not why you wrote the book.

MACMILLAN: No. In fact itís almost why I didnít write the book, because I thought everyone would think I was just doing it to be nice about my great-grandfather, which I fought against doing.

WATTENBERG: Did you ever meet him?

MACMILLAN: No. He died a year after I was born.


MACMILLAN: But I knew my grandmother very well - and my great aunt - whoíd both been there in Paris with him and at various stages.


MACMILLAN: So they told me a lot about it.


MACMILLAN: But, so you had David Lloyd George of Britain, Woodrow Wilson - President Woodrow Wilson in the United States - Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France and Vittorio Orlando, the Prime Minister of Italy. Russia wasnít there because theyíd dropped out of the war. Theyíd had their revolution and they were now in a civil war. And they were meant to meet together and draw up a common allied platform and then they were gonna have an old-fashioned sort of peace conference where everyone, winners and losers, sat down and hashed it out. But they took so long to get a common platform that by the time they got it it was May - they started doing it in January, 1919 - so by May, 1919 theyíd finally come up with a common platform.

WATTENBERG: That the victors - among the victors...



MACMILLAN: So they ended up not really having an old-fashioned type of peace conference at all. They basically had a victorís peace conference. They didnít there - then they did not dare to begin to negotiate it again with Germany and the other defeated nations, so they called the Germans and the other defeated nations, one by one, and they said to them basically, here are the terms, take them or leave them, which Germany in particular resented bitterly.

WATTENBERG: I gather the key personality, was Woodrow Wilson. Is that the idea? I mean thatís who the world was concentrating on.

MACMILLAN: Woodrow Wilson was the key personality in a way, although the United States wasnít yet the dominant power. If there was a dominant power it was still Great Britain or the British Empire. But Woodrow Wilson was the one that the public looked to, because he expressed I think more than anyone else a public longing for a better world. I mean the war had been so awful and caused such destruction that I think people thought something better must come out of this and we canít afford to do it to ourselves again.

WATTENBERG: What are the statistics I saw that you have in your book? Is it a quarter of all young Frenchmen were killed during the war?

MACMILLAN: A quarter of all men in France of military age. The French lost the most proportionate to their population of any country in the war.

WATTENBERG: A quarter. God, that is amazing, isnít it?

MACMILLAN: Itís - I canít imagine it actually. Itís hard to get your mind around it.

WATTENBERG: And of course you get disillusioned a whole generation of Brits didnít it, who were just stuck in those trenches and just killing each other.

MACMILLAN: Well, and those who survived felt a combination of guilt, because they had survived and their friends hadnít survived. I think a lot of them resolved that there would never be a war like this again, which of course led into the appeasement of the 1930s, but you also got people like Hitler who looked back and said it was one of the happiest times of his life. The camaraderie, you know, theyíre all there in the trenches together, so people different took different messages...

WATTENBERG: He was a corporal in the German army, is that right?

MACMILLAN: He was a corporal in the German army and a very brave one apparently.

WATTENBERG: Now what were Wilsonís principals that he came to, I mean they - I gather they sort of excited the world.

MACMILLAN: Yes. Well Wilson had the big picture more than anyone else. I mean Britain had its national aims and France had its national aims and so on. But Wilson came into the peace conference saying we donít want anything from the United States. What we want is to make a better world and thatís what people got excited about. And he talked about a world in which you didnít have the old secret deals which he argued had led to the first World War that you had an open diplomacy, you had a league of nations where nations would get together and - and keep the peace and - and protect each other. Youíd have collective security; youíd have a world without trade barriers; you would have a world where people had democratic government. I mean it was a wonderful picture.

WATTENBERG: And the key phrase, or one of them, was self-determination. What was decided? What are they - so they had this - the victors met amongst themselves, cut their deals without really hearing the case of - of the vanquished and sat them down one by one and said, íHereís what your country is.í


WATTENBERG: And what was the result?

MACMILLAN: Well, the result has been argued about ever since. I mean was it so harsh that, again in the case of Germany particularly, it drove the Germans to extremes; it drove them into the arms of Hitler and it led to...

WATTENBERG: Well what did they actually take away from the Germans?

MACMILLAN: Well, Germany lost all its colonies, which in fact was a blessing in disguise because theyíd never paid. Germany had grabbed some very indifferent colonies around the world...

WATTENBERG: And they took another year - another world war until the Brits and the French get, and the Dutch were - lost their colonies.

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yes. I mean little do the British and French know it, but they - the empires were on the way out anyway, but the Germany lost some land in the east; it lost land to what became the reborn Poland but some of that land...

WATTENBERG: In other words some of what was Germany became Poland.

MACMILLAN: Yes. But to be fair, some of what had been Germany had once been Poland, so when Poland was reborn it took what had become part of Germany. But in fact if you go back to the eighteenth century it had belonged to Poland. It lost some territory in the west, which itíd taken from France. It lost Alsace and Lorraine, those two provinces which it had seized from France in 1871.

WATTENBERG: But again they were originally French, had been taken over by the Germans and now the victors gave it back to France.

MACMILLAN: Gave it back to France. They lost...

WATTENBERG: ...highly industrial coal mining, steel producing areas.

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yes. I mean it was a considerable loss for Germany but Germany still, even with its territorial losses in Europe; it still was the biggest county in Europe west of Russia. So it wasnít - not reduced to a tiny little helpless scrap of country. It still had its infrastructure so it was still a very powerful country. Under the treaty Germany also was meant to disarm. It was only meant to have an army of a hundred thousand men. It wasnít meant to have an air force. It wasnít meant to have tanks. It wasnít meant to have this and that.

WATTENBERG: This was all spelled out.

MACMILLAN: It was all spelled out in great detail. I mean the treatyís massive. I mean I think ití something like four hundred and forty clauses. But...

WATTENBERG: Thatíll do it every time.

MACMILLAN: Thatíll do it every time. Some of itís ridiculous because in the one hand at the beginning of the treaty you have the covenant of the League of Nations, which is Woodrow Wilsonís vision for new world organization.

MACMILLAN: But you have all these territorial provisions. You have disarmament provisions and then you have what was probably the most difficult one, or the one that became the most contentious and thatís the reparations issue.

WATTENBERG: Yes. How did that play out?

MACMILLAN: Well, there was...

WATTENBERG: What was the rational?

MACMILLAN: Yes. Well the rational - and even Woodrow Wilson agreed with this as well - was that someone should pay for all the damages done to Belgium which was invaded at the start of the war by Germany and occupied...almost the whole of Belgium was occupied during the war and someone should pay for all the damage done, for example to the north of France where most of the fighting had been.


MACMILLAN: And who should pay but Germany? And even again, Woodrow Wilson agreed that Germany had started the war and so Germany was obliged under the treaty to pay for the damage it had done. These were called reparations.

WATTENBERG: Right. And there are those who say that there were enormous and there are those I gather from your book who say, íwell they werenít really that big in terms of dollar amounts.í

MACMILLAN: Yep. The trouble is there was sort of a way of fudging it and thatís what the allies did. The allies knew - Lloyd George of Britain and Clemenceau of France and so on - knew that in fact they couldnít ever get that much out of Germany but they couldnít tell their own publics that. And so what they did was ultimately come up with a very large figure that they structured in such a way that Germany would not have to pay the largest part of what it owed until it had paid the first two parts. And so Germany in a way knew that it wasnít going to have to pay the whole lot.


MACMILLAN: But it was put in such a way that the German public thought they were paying a great deal; allied public opinion was satisfied they were getting a great deal out of Germany. I think everybody secretly knew, at least people in leadership positions secretly knew that Germany was never going to have to pay that much.

WATTENBERG: Right. Tell me about um, I gathered as I read your book, this was the first time that you had a real media presence for an extended period of time over a diplomatic event. I mean it was sort of like a superbowl or something. It was there - I think the number you gave was seven hundred accredited journalists. And there were - I guess it was before actual public opinion polling, which came in with Gallup in the thirties - but there was clear feedback from the public. Is that correct and if so what did that do to the process?

MACMILLAN: I think - I mean there had - public opinion had been becoming a force but this was really the first big international gathering where it really became quite clear just how important it was. The press was there and more than that the leaders who were there kept on getting reports from their own people and Woodrow Wilson would get reports from Washington saying you know, such and such an issue is really causing concern to the American people; or Lloyd George would get telegrams from - from England saying, íYou have got to be tougher on Germany.í And they were all democratic politicians and so they were looking anxiously over their shoulders to make sure that their publics approved of what they were doing.

WATTENBERG: And the reporters there of course every - I can imagine seven hundred reporters covering one event; everybodyís always outbidding somebody to get the most sensational headline.

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yes. Yes, I mean there were endless rumors going around and stories and what was going on and initially Woodrow Wilsonís idea was that they should have a fairly open negotiation and they realized very soon that this would be complete disaster, I mean you canít ...

WATTENBERG: Because every...we have to posture...

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yes. And you canít have delicate negotiations in public and so they closed the main sessions to the press and the press then complained bitterly, but...

WATTENBERG: But then they would still be getting leaks...

MACMILLAN: Oh yeah. Yeah.

WATTENBERG: ...it was like America or Canada or Britain. I mean itís just a...

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yes. Yes. In fact I get the impression that this is when politicians really learned how useful leaks can be.

WATTENBERG: Yes. Thatís right. The meeting was closed but then somebody said, íHey, well you know, we won; we lost and this is so and so and this is so and soí. And then the press would pick it up from one another obviously. I mean they didnít have computers but they had their means and ways of doing it.

MACMILLAN: Yes and all the hotels in Paris were filled with both delegates and press and the press often knew a lot of the delegates, so theyíd have meals together and theyíd you know, there was a constant sort of interchange between the delegates and the various press people.

WATTENBERG: The people in Paris at that time were some of the most amazing collection of political personalities. I mean you had... Ho Chi Minh was working in the kitchen at one of the Parisian hotels. Is that right?

MACMILLAN: Yes, he was working at the Ritz as an assistant chef.

WATTENBERG: Oh. Is that right?


WATTENBERG: And then he became the leader of the North Vietnamese and ultimately the Vietnamese and caused a little...

MACMILLAN: A little trouble...

WATTENBERG: A little problem - a little problem of itís own in Vietnam. So this really set the stage for I guess what we call now íthe media worldí. I mean what did your compatriot Marshall McCluen call it? The..

MACMILLAN: The global village?

WATTENBERG: Yes, the global village.

MACMILLAN: No I think it - because the world was already becoming more tied together through telegraphs and railways and I think now you really did get a sense that events in one part of the world were affecting events in another part. Itís also the first conference that was ever filmed, as far as I know.


MACMILLAN: So itís a funny sort of conference because itís partway between an old world, itís - and in some ways theyíre figures of the nineteenth century there but youíve also got figures of the twentieth century. And you have, you know you have the older men but you also have people like John Foster Dulles.


MACMILLAN: And John Maynard Keynes who are part of the future.

WATTENBERG: Letís just go around the world a little bit and tell me what was decided, and we talked about Germany...


WATTENBERG: We talked about Vietnam. What about Yugoslavia, thatís - or what is now called Serbia minus a few pieces I guess.

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yugoslavia was not created by the peace conference. It created itself, really. The Croatians and Slovians were suddenly left adrift when Austria/Hungary disappeared and they didnít really want to be independent and there was Serbia which had sort of people who were very like them and so they joined up with Serbia to form this new state of Yugoslavia. But if the peace conference and the powers in the peace conference hadnít recognized Yugoslavia and hadnít sort of given it their blessing, I donít think it would have existed in the same form so although Yugoslavia wasnít formed by the peace conference it was given a sort of stamp of approval by the conference.

WATTENBERG: Right. What about Palestine? Now Israel or part now letís not get into definition. But what about what was then called Palestine?

MACMILLAN: Well, the Paris Peace Conference and the period immediately around it is when a lot of the structure of whatís going to happen later - or the groundwork for whatís going to happen later on - is laid because the British during the war had given approval to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

WATTENBERG: That was the Balfour Declaration.

MACMILLAN: Under the Balfour Declaration.


MACMILLAN: At the same time the British and the French had quietly done a deal to make sure that they each got the bits of the Middle East that they wanted. I mean the Middle East was - most of it at that point - was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which was on the losing side and was clearly doomed to - to disappear.

WATTENBERG: Versailles um, kept the concept of uh, monarchs that the monarchy still lived after the Versailles Peace Treaty. Is that right? Basically.

MACMILLAN: They do. I mean nobody wants to get rid of kings, but a number of countries had made themselves republics when Germany had become a republic.


MACMILLAN: They got rid of Kaiser Wilhelm the Second who was not much missed, I donít think. Czechoslovakia became a republic. Yugoslavia when it was formed became a monarchy. I think in those days people still felt that they needed some form of - many countries felt they still needed some form of monarchy. Itís not entirely dead now. I mean thereís still talk about restoring a monarchy in Romania.

WATTENBERG: You mentioned somewhere in the book that it would have been healthier for all if the allies had marched all the way to Berlin. Now, can you explain what the geographical positions were what caused surrender and how come we didnít do that? And why would it have been healthier to do it?

MACMILLAN: Okay. Iím not sure if would have been healthier for the people whoíd have died fighting, but it...

WATTENBERG: [Laughing] We can sort of...

MACMILLAN: Yes, but it might have avoided later trouble. What happened is - is the Germany armies basically crumbled and broke in August, 1918 and the German forces began to pull back or retreat very - back quickly - very back to Germanyís boundaries and the German high command asked for an armistice. The armistice was signed on November the eleventh, 1918 leaving most of German soil free of occupation. For only a very, very small bit of Germany was occupied. The bit west of the Rhine River. And the German army marched back in tact into Berlin and was greeted by the new president of what - what was now a republic with the words íwe greet you undefeatedí. Now why it might have been better for Germany to be occupied is the German people then wouldnít ever have had any illusions about whether or not they were defeated. As it was, very soon after the war ended the German high command in particular began to say, íActually, we didnít really need an armistice; we could have fought oní, which is rubbish in my view. But this is what they began to say. And the only reason we had to give up was because the traitors at home who stabbed us in the back. And so youíve got something called íthe stab in the back theoryí.


MACMILLAN: Which was pernicious, but became very widely believed in Germany. And who stabbed us in the back? Oh, well, it was the left wing, the intellectuals, and the Jews.

WATTENBERG: And the Jews.

MACMILLAN: Yes. And this is when you really begin to get this sort of pernicious influence of the stab-in-the-back theory going into Germany. So it might have been better if Germany had been occupied. The trouble was - there were two reasons. Marshall Foch, who was the allied commander-in-chief said, íI cannot justify killing anymore men. You know, if we can get a peace, letís get it. And Germany is prepared to surrender all its military equipment. Letís get it.í The other thing is that the British in particular did not want to have to occupy Germany because they would have more and more American troops coming to Europe and if the war ended with a German occupation it wouldnít end until the spring, probably of 1919 and the United states would be much, much more influential than it already was and the British didnít want that.

WATTENBERG: So and - it being basically before the era of mass aerial bombardment, I mean you had some dog fights and stuff like that but, so the civilians, other than little fact that their sons were being killed, but they never really saw the devastation of total war.

MACMILLAN: No. They didnít see it - they didnít - many of them see what theyíd done to France or to Belgium. They also felt - I mean they sort of been done to them - they felt the privations from the British embargo, but they never really felt that they had been properly defeated and so when the treaty was signed - the Treaty of Versailles was signed - with that sense that many Germans had that they hadnít been properly defeated, of course they werenít going to welcome the treaty. They felt it was extremely unfair that they should sign a treaty, which treated them as if theyíd lost.

WATTENBERG: When youíre traveling in Europe and you look at the kids from Germany and France and the kids from France and in Germany and theyíre all sort of one happy troupe - the idea that these sorts of kids would start slaughtering each other - or that British soldiers would come onto the continent and start shooting people, it just doesnít.

MACMILLAN: No, itís hard to imagine it now.

WATTENBERG: Itís kind of hard to imagine today when you travel around Europe, you look at these young French kids and British kids and German kids - imagining these kids picking up mortars and rifles and butchering each other.

MACMILLAN: I mean itís - I think itís wonderful. I mean because their grandfathers were doing it.


MACMILLAN: Without any trouble at all.

WATTENBERG: And their great-grandfathers.


WATTENBERG: Itís a blood-soaked continent.

MACMILLAN: Yes. And they had the view - I mean the French thought the Germans were subhuman and the Germans thought the French were subhuman and that seems to me - and that sort of - the stereotyping seems to be - itís still there but it seems to - itís very much gone.

WATTENBERG: So, maybe thereís a little hope for the species left.

MACMILLAN: Oh, I hope so. I really do.

WATTENBERG: I saw where there was some reference, I mean the way people remember things that Osama bin Laden referred back to something coming out of the Versailles Treaty. Are you familiar with that?

MACMILLAN: Yes, well, I think I caught it the other day but that it seems to be so much of what the political rhetoric in the Middle East is about is about what happened to us, the Arabs at the end of the first World War. And how we were promised our own independent states and they were taken away from us by the imperialists and how the Balfour Declaration was issued promising a homeland to the Jews and Palestine. I mean this I think is very much in the historical memory of Arabs. Itís something they refer to and itís something that still is very much part of their thinking.

WATTENBERG: The prize that Wilson felt he won I gather in these Versailles negotiations was the League of Nations.


WATTENBERG: What happened?

MACMILLAN: Well Wilson thought -and Lee was the centerpiece of all his thinking about a new world order -if we could only get nations to work together, to prevent war, to settle disputes, to work together against aggressive nations the world will become a better place. And so for him if he could get the league up and running other problems would fall into place. I mean time and again in Paris they were talking about something, Wilson says, íLook, I know itís not right but when the league is running, it can sort it out.í I mean he had tremendous faith that this was the new international body that was going to save the world. It was set up on Wilsonís lines but the tragedy or part of the tragedy was that the United States never joined it.

WATTENBERG: And were the Brits and the French in it just as sort of a game or did they too share this idea that it was some visionary new way of thinking?

MACMILLAN: Itís a good question. There were a lot of Europeans in Britain and France and elsewhere who really believe that a new way had to be found. I mean, theyíd seen what the war had done. I mean, theyíd suffered from it so they were sympathetic to the idea of a league. They had reservations, particularly France, because France had been invaded twice by Germany in many peopleís living memory. Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister said, íI like the league, but I donít believe in it.í

WATTENBERG: Whatís the lesson for today?

MACMILLAN: I think the lesson is that even when youíre very powerful, you should not think that you can fix everything, sort everything out. That you may look at the world from the perspective of your very powerful capital and the British did it in their time and say, íWell thatíll be easy. Those people are much weaker than we are. They will do what we tell them.í But they may not. And -

WATTENBERG: As weíre seeing in Iraq.

MACMILLAN: Well I think you are seeing a bit in Iraq.

WATTENBERG: and Iím a supporter - was and am a supporter of - of that war but itís nothingís quite so simple.

MACMILLAN: Nothing is quite so simple and when youíre dealing with - I mean some things you can measure. You can measure guns, you can measure economic capacity, but when youíre dealing with nationalist fervors, when youíre dealing with ideologies and youíre dealing with religious fervors, then you canít always predict how people are going to behave because those sorts of feelings will make them behave in ways that arenít really rational often to you, but are very, very powerful.

WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you very much Margaret MacMillan. We can leave it on that. We shall see what happens in the future. Thank you again. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. We think it helps our program get better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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