This part-dramatised documentary about the Paris Peace Conference following the Great War contains some remarkable period footage and, refreshingly, contains no ‘talking heads’. Another notable credit is the film’s attempt to show matters from the German perspective, something all too often lacking in many other works about the Conference.
The inspiration for the film is drawn from Margaret MacMillan’s book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (John Murray, 2011.) Paris in January 1919 quite literally became the centre of the world, about as close as we have ever come to a global government. The guns had fallen silent on the Western Front barely two months before, and the so-called ‘Big Four’ – Britain, France, Italy and the USA – all brought different agendas to the table. The film skilfully depicts how these conflicting aims led to bickering, one-upmanship, insults, duplicity and sheer pettiness amongst these world leaders. While other countries jostled to get their voices heard, the Big Four used their sharp elbows to make sure that very few of the other delegations got a seat at the top table; and if they did, it wasn’t for long.
Paris 1919 also provides us with glimpses into the complexities of the task. We hear that exactly 4,022 villages were destroyed in the fighting, that 160,000 head of livestock were killed, and we see men drawing new boundaries on European maps without ever consulting or even considering the people who would be affected by these abstract lines traced in pencil. The bitterness and lust for revenge is clearly apparent when instructions are given to bring the German delegation to the Conference through areas most devastated by the fighting; and how during the bitterly cold spring weather, the heating was deliberately turned off in the hotel used by the German representatives. Their phones were tapped, their rooms were bugged, and it becomes clear that ‘peace’ would take second place to ‘punishment’ when the eventual Treaty of Versailles was placed before them for signature.
Paris 1919 is a highly entertaining, engrossing film that creates a framework for further study of this exciting time in European affairs. A companion film, The Treaty of Versailles, can also be found on The History Room’s YouTube channel.
Paris 1919 was produced in 2009 by the National Film Board of Canada in association with many international partners. Also available on DVD.