Reflection on historical scholarship … Margaret MacMillan on the Paris Peace

In this blogpost we responded to requests for book reviews linked to a teacher subject knowledge reading list. It’s a resource that we can keep expanding as #obhd. Please send additions when you find them.

We are also keen to share colleagues’ thoughts about useful books they have read. How has a book changed your thinking? How has a book given you new ideas for future practice?

In this series of daily blogposts, teacher trainees reflect on a book that they read and discussed with their mentors. The purpose of this reading was not necessarily for use directly in teaching, rather to emphasise to trainees the importance of continuing to update their subject knowledge and the value of discussion with colleagues. Sometimes the reading has led directly to specific teaching ideas for a particular class or to a change in practice, but the posts also illustrate the different ways in which reading and discussing historical scholarship can support continuing professional development – for experienced teachers as much as for trainees.

Today’s reflection on historical scholarship is on Margaret Macmillan’s book ‘Peacemakers’ and is written by Heather Taylor

I chose to read this book ahead of a teaching series about causes of WWII with my Year 9 group. Having owned the book since its first publication, I finally had a reason to dive in. I warmed quickly to Macmillan’s style. She combines heavyweight analysis and lots of technical detail with lavish personal descriptions of the vast array of protagonists crowding into Paris for a stake in the game. Paris was clearly glittering for this first half of 1919 and high-level negotiations were interspersed with informal late-night whisky in private hotel rooms, outings to the opera and meet-ups in stylish eateries.  It is this side of the story that draws the reader in. You can almost hear the drumming of polished leather shoes along hotel corridors as off-the-record meetings convene among the big men and their advisors. Macmillan gives us very high definition views of the ‘big three’, their civil servants and bag carriers. The machinations of political private office combine with the moods and character of the men: sometimes grumpiness, sometimes humour – it is gripping. We are privy to aspects of their marital relationships, personal idiosyncrasies and how all these things conspire to shape the dynamic of negotiations. Macmillan frames her core narrative with a superbly crafted supporting cast. One example is the description of Queen Marie of Romania and her fabulously inappropriate take on diplomacy. We learn of the relish with which the French receive Marie and the grey, if somewhat incredulous, disapproval of the Brits.

The book’s entertainment value fades a bit as one ploughs through weighty chapters on eastern Europe, the complexity of Yugoslavia through to Iraq and Israel. There is a real sense of festival in Paris but also the tortured anxiousness of all those who fight for their national interests and political survival in the countries to which they return. Personal quotes and funny anecdotes provide just enough oxygen to sustain.  I liked the casting of Poland’s character with: ‘The Poles had a knack for irritating even their friends in Paris. People joked that when an Englishman wrote a book on the elephant, he dealt with its habitat and how to hunt it; a German wrote a treatise on its biology; but the Pole started with ‘The elephant is a Polish question’’.

One is ever grateful of these light chuckles as the earnestness of the situation comes increasingly to the fore. I couldn’t help but think of how many millions of people’s ‘tiny’ lives hung in the balance. The book is a little old now and Macmillan’s views are no longer so strongly promulgated. She is rather protective of her protagonists and defends them against what she holds as the unfair accusation that they were solely responsible for the ensuing World War. Instead blame projects forward to those who came after them and their very separate set of mistakes.  My knowledge of changing interpretations about the causes of WWII is relatively scant and I’m therefore unable to critique her judgement in context.

The book had quite a personal impact, however, as it prompted recollections of stories my grandmother told of ‘Ost Preussen’ (East Prussia) and with that, thoughts of the culture, the belonging, the heritage, and more simply the baking, the jokes they shared, the family farm and general hubbub of a house full of 13 children. Those swift six months of 1919 set a new compass for her, the youngest of a very large family with roots spanning the southerly regions of Ploenen and Schroettesburg. East Prussia became an enclave as a result of the Treaty’s ‘Polish corridor’. It fell under the administration of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 30s when opposition was terrorised by the SA and the regions ruthlessly ‘Germanized’ and renamed. Towards the end of the war, East Prussia’s Nazi Gauleiter delayed evacuation of the civilian population until the eastern front was virtually on the border. The then ‘sudden’ arrival of the Red Army saw massacres and organised rape. The family homeland thus vanished, rendering little to pass down; even the oral history was too painful to share. I have recipes for ‘Flinsen’ (pancakes) and ‘Koenigsberger Klops’ (dumplings) plus the odd shard of Old Prussian recollected by my mother. It’s just one small story of the vast devastation the World Wars caused across the globe. German nationals, of course, all had the benefit of ‘Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung’ (‘coping with the past’) as part of their education and growing up but books like Macmillan’s catch me ill-prepared to digest and accept the harsh nature of that forgotten nation’s catastrophic loss.

Please do share more examples of reading, thinking and discussing historical scholarship as blogposts by sending them to enquiries@history.org.uk.

 

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