Book Review: The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise Historyby Michael NeibergOxford University Press, 2017One unlikely acid-test of historian Michael Neiberg's new book from Oxford University Press, The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise History, is a test none of the men gathered to sign that treaty in June of 1919 could have foreseen, nor could Neiberg himself, author of the critically-acclaimed Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I have likely foreseen it when he was just starting out a decade ago on his career as one of our foremost thinkers about the First World War. The acid-test is of course Wikipedia, the infinitely-expanding crowd-sourced online encyclopedia of everything, which presents casual browser and dedicated buff with a near-indispensable starting-point for almost any historical inquiry – and which perhaps too often acts as a finishing-point for too many of those eager seekers.The Wikipedia entry on the Treaty of Versailles is short, dense, and no doubt anonymously scrutinized by scholars and experts on the subject, and like all Wikipedia entries, it concludes with a list of sources, some of them hot-linked to facilitate continued study. It's available day or night on any of the many electronic devices with which we live, and it's free. By contrast, Neiberg's book is 100 pages long, ends with a References list that will never grow or change, and costs $20 in its hardcover edition. What was once the height of philistinism to ask is now a question that will be occurring to a great many casual bookshop browsers encountering Neiberg's little book at random: Why should I buy a “concise history” of the Treaty of Versailles when I can click on such a history at any time?It's no longer a bootless question, although some of the answers are as obvious as ever – the foremost being the fact that readers trading the all-hands-on-deck collective anonymity of Wikipedia for the considered insights of the world's leading expert are trading up. Objective marshaling of facts being equal (not always a given, as some entries in, for example, Oxford's “Very Short Introduction” series have illustrated over the years), it's decidedly preferable to read a writer like Neiberg, who matches a quietly powerful prose style with expansive insights, as when he makes an aside about treaty's specific wording about the League of Nations and the appeal it would have had to US President Woodrow Wilson:

The treaty used the word “Covenant” to refer to the agreement on the formation of the League, thus lending it a religious connotation. As the pious Wilson surely knew, Matthew 26:28 calls for a New Covenant consecrated by the crucifixion of Christ in order to atone for the sins of mankind. After a four-year war of unremitting savagery and cruelty, Wilson saw the League as doing nothing less than atoning for the modern sins of mankind just as Jesus had died for man's biblical ones. Covenants, inspired as they are by the Divine, are also unchangeable, an interpretation that was to cause the inflexible Wilson a great deal of harm.

As readers of his earlier books will recall, Neiberg is also especially sharp on the might-have-beens of his subjects, the off-branching possibilities glimpses for a moment in historical memoranda, the way things might have unfolded if they hadn't unfolded as they did. The Treaty of Versailles is at the center of a veritable map work of such roads not taken, and the conclusion of Neiberg's account is alive to the chances that things could have gone differently – if the postwar Western economy had fared better, if the ramshackle postwar German government had been stronger, and even if the League of Nations had fared better, although on this last point Neiberg is fascinatingly generous:

If it did not create the peaceful world that some had hoped that it might, the League at the very least created a precedent for dealing cooperatively, if not always successfully, with a variety of crises. It also helped to establish international norms for everything from child labor regulations to industrial standardization. Despite America's rejection of these innovations in the postwar years and despite the dominance of them by the British and French, the League nevertheless looks better at a century's remove than it did in its own day.

In other words, The Treaty of Versailles is misserved by its subtitle. This intensely interesting book might be 100 pages long, but it isn't really “a concise history,” which is, after all, a thing any curious reader can access at any time without the bother of bookstore shopping or pay $10 for a digital download. Instead, Neiberg has written “a concise study,” which is a very different thing; expertise like this comes from an individual, not a consensus, and that expertise is the overriding recommendation here.