Nothing Earth-'Shattering'

'A Shattered Peace' - By David A. Andelman (Wiley) - Out Now

Forty years after starting, David A. Andelman ’66 is still working on his senior thesis.

No, he’s not one of those students whose expected date of graduation is “20??.” While other students were storming University Hall and staging sit-ins to demand change for the future, this Harvard undergraduate was more interested in the past than either the present or the future. When Andelman decided to write his honors thesis on “Massachusetts Public Opinion and the Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles,” he must have known that at some point he’d return to his academic past.

That is exactly what Andelman, a former Crimson editor, has done with “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” a book which can easily be viewed as a treatise on history. Far from being Marx’s series of evolving dialectics or Fukuyama’s linear trajectory towards the liberal democratic “end of history,” Andelman’s history is a process that is often indelibly altered by the actions of a small number of individuals. Certainly, one of his criticisms of the Peace Conference at Versailles is that only a handful of ill-informed Ivy League intellectuals were entrusted with the task of redrawing the global map. But what makes Andelman’s account of the Peace Conference so enjoyable to read is his depiction of the players who take the field at Versailles. Each country’s concerns are embodied in the persons of their delegates, and Andelman spends as much time exploring the personal histories of these individuals as he does analyzing their country’s demands.

In the end, though, individuals cannot make history on their own. They cannot alter the will of the Allied nations or the ethnic hostilities of the Balkan states; for, as Andelman attests, “the currents of history move slowly.” Yet one man’s dream—President Wilson’s commitment to his vision for a League of Nations—can shape an entire Peace Conference and might, arguably, be charged with its failure.

On the last page of the book, Andelman notes that we have learned from history that the best of intentions can fail: “We have only to look to the past to prove this point—provided we look far enough back to see where our troubles began.” This is a central premise of the book, the idea that if we look back to the diplomatic arrangements initiated at Versailles in 1919, we will find the roots of the conflicts which torment the international community nearly a century later. Most importantly, Andelman contends that the Treaty’s oversight of a number of issues in the Middle East—namely their failure to understand the entrenched antagonisms between Shi’ites and Sunni and between Bedouin Arabs and Palestinians—has contributed to the modern-day plagues of terrorism and conflicts ranging from the Iranian Revolution to the Iraq war.

But accounts like Andelman’s lead one to wonder how examining the past can help us to move forward in the future. While Bernard Lewis’s celebrated account of the fall of ancient Islamic civilization, “What Went Wrong?,” traced the roots of tension in the Middle East to the anti-modern tendencies of Islam, it begged the question: What do we do now?

“A Shattered Peace” leads the reader to ask the same question. At best, Andelman proposes an analogy between America’s contemporary attempts to remake the world in its own image and the country’s 1919 efforts to do the same. Then, as now, the moralistic mindset of the United States prevented it from comprehending what Japan, China, Iran, Yugoslavia, and other nations truly needed for peace. So, the uninspiring implication is, proceed with caution.

Ultimately, Andelman’s only meaningful insight is that international politics cannot be conducted without extensive knowledge of other nations’ religions, allegiances, needs, hopes, and histories. Of course, he is by no means the first to make this observation. If there is one lesson that the Western world has learned from the last half-century, it is that a failure to understand other cultures can be fatal.

Still, Andelman succeeds in establishing that the implications of the 1919 peace treaty are much greater in scope than we tend to think. Germany’s were not the only delegates who left the negotiating table discontented, though their dissatisfaction was most immediately explosive. If we can take anything from Andelman’s account of what was an extraordinary crossroads in history, it is that diplomacy is a messy affair. The hope is that future attempts at international accord will be less so, though it’s unclear from Andelman’s work how history can aid us in this endeavor.

—Staff writer Anjali Motgi can be reached at