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Philosophy of New Music

Paris 1919: Inside The Peace Talks That Changed The World

by Paul Cowan
National Film Board of Canada, 2008
94 mins, DVD, $19.98
French with subtitles
Distributor’s website: http://films.nfb.ca/paris-1919/film.php.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Paris 1919 revisits the creation of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One, concluded the Age of Empire, and ushered in the modern colonial era. An excellent teaching resource for history classes, it will be particularly useful in high school and undergraduate classes on the history of 20th and 21st Century conflicts.

Paris 1919 revisits how national boundaries and colonial territories were arbitrarily defined at the Berlin Conference of 1885 and tortuously redrawn in the aftermath of World War One, laying the basis for future conflict. Moreover, the film provides historical snapshots of great relevance today. Consider for instance the Hashemite King Faisal expressing sympathy for the Zionist cause and accepting The Balfour Declaration. Consider the division of the Ottoman Empire into multiple modern nations/Arab kingdoms, the unresolved Chinese and Japanese hostilities and the Italian-German fascist nexus. Then, there are the various Asian and African leaders vying for future power and influence, minor actors at that time destined for playing key roles in the cataclysmic changes that would take place over the coming decades leading up the World War Two and beyond.

The principle actors are the Americans, the British, the French represented respectively by President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and President George Clemenceau. The film is possibly at its best towards the end when the German government representatives refuse to accept the long drawn out treaty bringing the world to the brink of war yet again There stands Woodrow Wilson resolute and Maynard Keynes’ resigned after struggling to assess the costs of the war, the value of German assets and thus a reasonable sum for reparations minus any punitive damages. There we witness Lloyd George’s famous last minute flip flop on reparations, and finally the German capitulation, the signing ceremony on that cold winter day in the Palace of Versailles.

Inspired by Margaret McMillan’s bestseller by the same name, the film skillfully incorporates original materials into the re-enactment. It certainly succeeds in its aim to portray the complicated process of drafting the terms of the ending of The Great War and how Woodrow Wilson sought in vain to create a League of Nations in order to prevent future such conflicts. [1] However when one compares the film to the television documentaries based purely on archival film, it seems to lack the drama and pathos of the real. With its narration and staged scenes, as well crafted and informative as they are, the film is in my view not particularly emotionally arresting outside of the iconic archival footage. It seems much less powerful than the other recent films staging re-enactments and combining archival materials so as to revisit signal periods and events in modern British history such as The Queen and The King’s Speech. Briefly by way of comparison, the former focuses on the changes that have taken place in the monarchy over the course of the 20th Century while the latter focuses on King George the 6th’s ascension and how he overcame his speech impediment - as did Winston Churchill. In all these films, Paris 1919 included, we learn about private turmoil and the orchestration and power of major political and media events in modern history.  Regardless of their relative merits, such films emerging as they are at this time constitute a fin de siecle phenomenon as we leave the 20th Century behind and move into the next – perhaps asking ourselves where our predecessors have been and where our children might be going.

In that context such films are both important and interesting and especially relevant to the younger generations today. Many of them will not have yet heard Winston Churchill’s World War Two speeches. Nor might they appreciate the significance of the scale of World War One and its consequences no less the significance of the Berlin Conference of 1885. Nevertheless, perhaps the sudden eruption of Arab democratic revolutions will spur interest in a film such as Paris 1919. Perhaps current events and such well made resources will prove a boon to high school and college history programs. What better way than combining film and archives to spur an appreciation of history, of the changing fates of monarchies and colonial systems spanning the Age of Empire, World Wars, revolutions, independence movements, the hopes and the failures, and the ongoing conflicts predetermined by maps drawn up long ago by competing global powers.

Finally, Paris 1919 is a film about humanity seeking peace and justice against all odds. Alongside similar films turning back the pages of history, it could do much to advance the importance and relevance of the subject of history in higher education today.


[1] Recently Margaret McMillan has noted that the final payment of the war bonds for World War I war reparations was completed in December 2010 by the German government (see “The war to end all wars is finally over”, The International Herald Tribune, Monday, December 27, 2010, p. 8). McMillan’s review is especially important to those who will watch and debate the film Paris 1919 for as she writes: “. . .the payment brought to a close one of the most poisonous chapters of the 20th Century. It also, unfortunately, brought back to life an insidious historical myth: that the reparations and other treaty measures were so odious that they made Adolf Hitler’s rise and World War II inevitable.” As regards the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and their historical origins, see A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin (1989) and Karl Meyer The Dust of Empire (2003). Also see Eric Hobsbawm “From Peace to War”, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, pp. 302-40.

Last Updated 8 May 2011

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