Persons who want to understand the world in any depth must read historical background, and the roots of many contemporary problems in eastern Europe and the Middle East can be traced directly to the Paris peace conference that occurred in 1919, immediately after the First World War. Margaret MacMillan's prize-winning work not only examines the personalities, political forces and events of the conference in themselves, but expertly evaluates them as causative forces from our own perspective in the early twenty-first century.
US President Woodrow Wilson, who promulgated an idealist position with his Fourteen Points, is viewed in the book as a somewhat self-righteous, priggish person individual who could be irritating in his interrelations with the other allied leaders (such as French President Georges Clemenceau) who were less idealistic and more nationalistically self-interested than he was. Although the conference tried to apply Wilson's tenet of national self-determination in central and eastern Europe, the principle proved extremely difficult to implement in practice. There were few neat, natural, easily identifiable demarcations that separated Poles from Germans and Ukrainians, or Hungarians from Serbo-Croatians and Romanians. Such were only a few examples of the problems posed by the self-determination of European nationalities that had long been part of old empires recently collapsed in the war. Nationalities tended to be scattered, and the leading delegates at the conference were presented with an overwhelming barrage of conflicting claims by interested parties and situations that were virtually impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of everyone concerned.
Despite the fact that the victorious allies and the Germans had worn themselves out in the global conflict, there still were regionalized conflicts that erupted, such as the Polish campaign against Soviet Russia led by Marshall Pilsudski, and Mustafa Kemal's successful defense of Turkish Anatolia against a Greek invasion. Orlando of Italy still had ambitions in the eastern Adriatic. Frustrations of Italian aspirations led to Italy's withdrawal from the conference, and the rise of Benito Mussolini. In response to Italian ambitions, a number of disparate Slavic groupings in the Balkans felt pressured to form the uneasy federation called Yugoslavia that fell to pieces in the 1990's. Thus, there is a strong connection between 1919 and the NATO campaign against Slobodan Milosovic in our own time.
Although many issues in central and eastern Europe proved immensely cantankerous, the conference at least attempted to address most European national aspirations.
No such attempts were even placed on the table with regard to the Middle East, where the fate of the old territories of the Ottoman Empire were at stake. All that the Armenians could get was a small republic in the emerging Soviet Union, which itself was viewed very darkly at the conference. The Armenians, however, could at least present a delegation that could communicate in English or French, like the Turks themselves and the Arabs. The Kurds, who attract huge media attention today as one of the principle players in the conflicts in Iraq, were in such a lowly tribal status in 1919 that they could not provide a single delegate who could present himself at the conference.
With the Middle East, the conference ignored the aspirations of Arab nationalists, who dreamed of a great tolerant Arab state stretching from the mountains of Turkey in the north to the Yemen in the south. Instead, the conference drew the lines in the sand that still are the southern boundaries of Turkey and most of the Arab states east of Egypt. These lines ignored such underlying realities as Sunni vs. Shia vs. Kurd, that are the foundation of so much of the violent politics of present-day Iraq. Also, many of the long-suffering Jewish people of Europe were wishing to retturn to their ancient homeland even before 1919. In seeking some formula in which future disputes between Jewish settlers and Palestinian Arabs might be avoided, the leading members at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 had opportunities that they simply did not take.
Besides providing expert and highly readable discussion of the issues that have been surveyed in this abstract (and many, many more), Margaret MacMillan herself has an interesting pedigree as the author of a major work on the conference. Although a resident of Canada, and a faculty member of the University of Toronto, she is a great-grandaughter of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was one of the principle figures at the conference.