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The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking after the First World War Review

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The post-WW1 peace treaties, and above all else the treaty between the Allies and Germany - the Versailles Treaty - have gone down in history as tremendously controversial events, and popular opprobrium continues to be heaped upon them, with the charge that they were responsible for the rise of fascism and ultimately the Second World War. Regardless of whether this charge is accepted or not, it is certainly true that they have had a tremendous impact upon history, and that they were very complicated, and momentous development. This has generated a whole host of books on the subject, and one of the more recent, general introduction ones is Alan Sharps' The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking after the First World War, 1919-1923. Unfortunately, Sharp's book lacks in crucial details and is generally too broad and generalist, and in the modern age of huge amounts of freely available online information, generally is an unnecessary work.

The four crucial figures from the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson, Vittorio Orlando, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau.

The four crucial figures from the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson, Vittorio Orlando, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau.

Chapter 1, "Old Worlds Fall Apart" provides a general introduction to the momentous events, causes, and consequences of WW1 and the changing world before it, which had transformed the world dramatically in just a few decades.

Chapter 2, "The Paris Peace Conference," describes the decision to hold the post-WW1 peace conference in Paris, and the structure and organization of the bodies and figures at Paris. It then moves on to some of the crucial debates and how negotiations solved them, leading to the treaty's completion.

Chapter 3, "The League of Nations," shifts the focus to the formation of the League of Nations, with Woodrow Wilson's idea for it, 19th century precedents and the different proposals, outlines, principles, and objectives of the nations at the conference. It also discusses the post-war history of the League.

Chapter 4, "Reparations," treats as the name implies the thorniest historical issue of the conference, Central Power war reparations, discussing the different Allied objectives and proposals for war reparations from both Britain and France, as well as their alternative suggestions for post-war reconstruction such as the French desire for inter-allied economic cooperation, the polemics over terms, the arrival of the "War Guilt Clause" and ultimate concrete result.

Chapter 5, "The German Settlement," concerns the territorial and military terms imposed on Germany and the continued issues that it posed, such as the French desire for security against Germany and the battle for influence in the Rhineland. Beyond the claims of Belgium, Poland, and Denmark, there was also the issue of bringing German leadership to justice for war crimes, something which was largely a failure but which set a precedent for the future.

Chapter 6, "The Eastern European Settlement," concerns the huge panoply of claims exercised by the different new, and old, states of Eastern Europe arisen from the ashes of the old Empires, covering the huge number of territorial shifts, controversies, and contentions. It also includes the Balkans and Italy's territorial claims there, the problem of Russia, and the plebiscites carried out.

Chapter 7, "The Colonial, Near and Middle Eastern Settlements" looks at the mandate system. the division of colonial spoils from Germany, and the cutting up of the former Ottoman Empire and the post-war events that scuttled the attempts at a full partition of Turkey, as well as the Balfour Declaration and the rise of Arab Nationalism.

The conclusion stresses the sheer complexity of Versailles, looks at the character of the principal leaders, the fundamental strategies of the different involved powers, and comparing it to later peace making efforts to emphasize how many of the problems and conundrums faced at Versailles continue to echo down to today.

A final segment, "Endnote: Changing Perceptions of the Versailles Settlement," covers the changing historiographical perception of Versailles.

Any general history book of a subject in the modern day runs into the problem that there is a panoply of information available about it online, and so that to simply write a short general history book is to write something which can already be accessed more easily, and for free, elsewhere. I think that that Sharp's book verres too far to the side of being too general: it doesn't do anything particularly wrong, but it lacks the detail which one should really expect out of a work like this.

Nevertheless, one should definitely admit that it does do as a rule a decent job. It provides a good and clear picture of what were the principal arguments and debates concerning the peace treaties, and what were the strategic objectives of each of the nations involved. The reason why I find this to be insufficient is that the post-WW1 peace treaties have massive online collections of information about them, and it is quite easy to simply look it up on Wikipedia. The book's general overview of history is less and less useful in the present.

The best part about the book is its historiography section, found in the endnote on historical perceptions which does a good job in covering the changing historical perception of Versailles over time and some of the crucial works dealing with it, beyond just those of Keyne's The Economic Consequences of the Peace. This shows the revisionist attitudes to the Treaty in the Interwar, the vigorous historical battles over the nature and extent of German guilt in the 60s and 70s, and the modern historical consensus about the Versailles treaties and their companions - as efforts that dealt as well as any could with the incompatible problems of them, and which failed not due to themselves but due to the historical developments following them. Certainly this section is brief, but it does an excellent job of enumerating the historical works caught up in the perception of Versailles. It is also something which is not to be found elsewhere to the same extent, which makes it unique.

For a general introduction to the Versailles treaty, this book is acceptable enough, and it helps to give a good understanding of what the contemporary "normal" scholarly position is on the post-WW1 peace process. Unfortunately, if one has already read anything on the subject, it doesn't provide much in the way of new material, and lacks the complexity and depth that would be needed for providing a real reference book. It is a poster child of the sort of general undergraduate reading that is just good enough to provide a general picture, generally written easily and readably, without providing the depth and detail for a fuller picture. There are so many books written about Versailles, that this one doesn't stand out from the crowd.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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