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1919: Mushrooms and Lies

Paris - The Pantheon from the Jardin du Luxembourg - Copyright © by Alan Grant
The pantheon from the Jardin du Luxembourg

Margaret MacMillan's book on the 1919 Paris Peace Conference is a fascinating and highly readable account of those months, which were to shape history for the rest of the century. Of course, the book covers the world but unsurprisingly there is a fair bit about our corner of the planet here. What is interesting is to hear the echoes of what she writes about 1919 in our own time.

"To all the Balkan nations the disappearance of Austria-Hungary was as exhilarating an opportunity as the defeats of the Ottoman empire before the war. Each wanted as much as it could get; self-determination for itself but not for its neighbours. Already during that confused period in October 1918 when Austria-Hungary sued for peace and then vanished from history, Balkan governments had started to stake out possession, moving their armies in. New bodies popped up like mushrooms after a storm: workers' councils, soldiers' councils, councils of Croats, Macedonians, Greeks. It was not clear who was behind them but there seemed no end to them and no limit to their demands."

"Greece wanted the rest of European Turkey; so did Bulgaria. Both Greece and Yugoslavia contemplated a division of Albania. Rumania and Bulgaria could not agree on ownership of Dobrudja, which stretched along the west coast of the Black Sea. Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria all wanted more of Macedonia. There was fine talk of saving civilization and fighting for right and honour; underneath were calculations of realpolitik. In the heady atmosphere of 1919, when lines on so many maps were flickering, when negotiations about almost everything seemed possible, it was madness not to grab as much as possible. Balkan statesmen claimed to admire Wilson; they talked the language of self-determination, justice and international co-operation and produced petitions, said to represent the voice of the people, to bolster their old-style land grabbing. They showed beautifully drawn maps. "It would take a huge monograph", wrote an American expert, "to contain an analysis of all the types of map forgeries that the wear and peace conference called forth...It was in the Balkans that the use of this process reached its most brilliant climax."

Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War. Margaret MacMillan. 2003.
[p. 131 / John Murray]

April 2007
Tim Judah

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