Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Alan Sharp
Price (RRP): £12.99
The Paris peace conferences at the end of the First World War still loom large in our collective imagination.
For the most part, the subject is viewed through the prism of the emotions and sentiments that were felt at the time and subsequently: that, for all the noble idealism, the end result was – at best – a missed opportunity, or even that it was unworkable, unfair and indefensible.
Of course, that ‘missed opportunity’ would not be without consequences. Every student of history knows that the seeds of the Second World War were contained in the rancour engendered by the Paris conferences, and it is a criticism that would not have been lost on those around the Versailles table.
As one contemporary presciently noted: “After ‘the war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace’”. Therein, in large part, lies the negative reputation that the conferences have since endured.
Yet, in his new book, Alan Sharp argues for a reassessment of the Paris conferences. While he readily acknowledges that the settlement was profoundly flawed and contributed greatly to the horrors that succeeded it, he is nonetheless conciliatory: “Those who would condemn the peacemakers,” he says, “should perhaps be more cautious with their judgements.”
The gist of his argument is twofold. Firstly, he suggests that the sheer scale of the disruption and dislocation caused by the collapse of four empires at the end of the First World War was so vast and unprecedented, that the chances of any satisfactory settlement of the myriad problems raised were very small. In such circumstances, perhaps the flawed peace was the best that could have been achieved.
Secondly, Sharp suggests that there is much contained within the provisions and deliberations of the Paris conferences that is of seminal importance to the wider history of the 20th century: the principle of national self-determination, for instance, or collective security, or developments in the fields of international law or human rights.
Thus, though Paris was, in essence, the last of the great power conferences of the 19th century – after Vienna (1814–15) and Berlin (1884) – it also formed an essential starting point for the century that followed.
With these assertions, Sharp not only advocates a timely, and rather more benign, reassessment of the Paris peace conferences, he also does an excellent job of placing them within a much wider context than they normally inhabit: one reaching right up to the present day.
In this latter connection, one suspects that Sharp casts his net a little too widely, but the overarching point is nonetheless well made and convincing.
Drawing on recent scholarship, Professor Sharp’s analysis is concise, perceptive and engaging. His beautifully produced book provides an excellent overview of a complex and wide-ranging topic, and would appeal equally to the general reader or to the student of the subject.
This is not quite a rehabilitation of the Paris treaties, but it is certainly a plea for any future assessments to bear both contemporary difficulties and later legacies more firmly in mind.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939–45 (Bodley Head, 2010)