The End of Order

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the resulting Versailles Treaty imposed by the victorious Allies on a prostrate Germany are subjects that have long occupied the interest, usually highly critical, of politicians, historians, and economists, and even the educated public. Scholars and diplomats condemned the Treaty before it was completed, as is most clearly evidenced by John Maynard Keynes’ classic, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Historians, enjoying the boon of hindsight, have long dissected the Conference and the Treaty. Often, though not always, they have viewed the Carthaginian peace primarily as a blueprint for Hitler’s rise to power and have seen it as encouragement for a German resurgence and the outbreak of another war. Criticism of the peace Treaty has traditionally been based upon Woodrow Wilson’s failure to honor fully his promise to the Germans that the new order would be based upon his idealistic, and often historically simplistic, Fourteen Points. Instead, it has been claimed, Georges Clemenceau of France, anxious to avenge himself and France for German wrongs dating back to the Franco-Prussian War, manipulated Wilson, David Lloyd George, and others into drafting a peace settlement that failed to take account of the political, economic, and nationalist realities of the day.

Charles L. Mee, Jr.’s, The End of Order: Versailles, 1919 does not depart from this traditional interpretation of the event and its effects. Mee has, however, produced an unusual and stimulating book that provides badly needed insight into the motivations, idiosyncrasies, character, and physical condition of the major participants. It can be best described as a literary collage—indeed Mee takes his inspiration from two contemporaries of the events he describes: the writer, Marcel Proust, and the artist, Kurt Schwitters. Divided into several parts and organized in a loosely chronological fashion, The End of Order is composed primarily of very short sections, many little more than a paragraph in length, which describe the reactions to events by participants and nonparticipants, both well-known and little-known, in a variety of locales in Paris and its environs. While Mee devotes most of his attention to Paris, the main scene of action, he also takes his reader to such places as Washington, Berlin, Budapest, Rome, and Moscow as events in those locales are intertwined with those in Paris. Allowing his subjects to speak primarily for themselves, with relatively brief but often telling transition narrative, Mee captures much of the flavor and color absent in more traditional accounts.

A second-generation American of English origin, the author, Charles L. Mee, Jr., was educated at Harvard and served formerly as Editor of Horizon magazine. He is the author of several books and plays, including among the former a biography of Erasmus, a description of life during the Renaissance, and his best-selling Meeting at Potsdam. He makes no secret of his highly charged emotions over the tragedy of the Great War and his disappointment in the peace settlement which followed it, dedicating his book to the memory of “William Mee, my grandfather, who lost 10 of his brothers in World War I.” This passion, which would undoubtedly be criticized by some historians who place a far higher premium on objectivity than on sentiment, actually contributes to the depth of character analysis and helps the reader, both scholarly and lay, to have a greater appreciation and understanding of people, places, and events in a now somewhat distant past.

The chronology of events that transpired in Paris between early January and late June, 1919, is moderately familiar. During the first month, numerous committees were established to research various features of the prospective treaty, and Wilson directed his attention to drawing up a covenant for his League of Nations. During the second month both Wilson and Lloyd George returned to their respective national capitals to tend to domestic political matters, leaving affairs in the hands of their subordinates. Clemenceau survived an attempt on his life and aligned France with Britain to force through peace terms more in consonance with French and British desires for revenge, compensation, and humiliation. Isolated and ineffectual, Colonel House, Wilson’s second-in-command, caved in to the Anglo-French demand for a “preliminary” treaty of peace with Germany in which the covenant of Wilson’s prized League had been eliminated.

Wilson’s return to Paris in mid-March marked the beginning of the most serious period of bargaining between the Allies. Within a month the impasse between British and French objectives and those of the United States became so great that Wilson contemplated a return to Washington. An increasingly sick, uncomfortable, and paranoid leader Wilson was unable to compromise with the equally intractable Clemenceau who enjoyed the political advantage of performing on his own national stage. Finally the logjam was broken with a compromise over the pivotal Saar coal fields in mid-April. During the next four weeks the remainder of the Treaty was drafted, with Wilson acceding to French demands for reparations, demilitarization of the Rhineland, and German colonial concessions, and to British demands for British naval domination (previously conceded) and colonial acquisitions at Germany’s expense. In return for these accessions, Wilson extracted an Allied guarantee that an article providing for the establishment of a League of Nations would be incorporated in the Treaty.

A German delegation, headed by the foreign minister of the new Weimar government, the establishment of which was dictated earlier by Wilson as a condition for an honorable peace, was summoned to Paris to receive from the victorious Allies a treaty in the drafting of which Germany had played no role. When the Allies and Germans both read the text of the Treaty for the first time they found that “all of the most extreme provisions the Allies had contemplated seemed to have made their way into the finished treaty. . . . [And] the cumulative effect was horrible. In every instance, it seemed, the scales had been tipped against Germany: the treaty was a work of malice.” From this day...

(The entire section is 2566 words.)